The Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, The importance of travels for an artist, and reflections on the art of Ikè No Taiga

The Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, The Importance of travels for an artist, and reflections on the art of
Ikè No Taiga

Over a thousand years ago in China, there was an artistic movement of “Literati painters.”
These were well-read artists who worked mostly with brush and ink on rice or mulberry paper.
They were more philosophers and visionaries than craftsmen or technicians.

Intentionally, their focus was not to produce pretty or accurate paintings with correct representations of people and nature, but to evoke new feelings and perspectives on life.

They wished to free the human mind from earthly bondage and to uplift the human spirit from the daily grind.
They wanted to show others the unseen world, as seen through their inner eyes.

Much like the European Impressionist painters who conveyed nature through light and feeling, these Chinese literati painters wished to show the hidden, spiritual aspect of the Natural world.

Their ideal was that one could never become a great artist without reading the “Ten thousand volumes” and journeying the “Ten thousand leagues.”

This means that in order to give their audience a new perspective, artists must venture into the world, travel, read, think, dream, and risk everything to stretch their own boundaries.

The term “Ten Thousand” in Chinese and Japanese, refers to the idea of “Many.”
Ten Thousand is an expression similar to when we say: “Oh, I’ve read a million books about….”
Ten Thousand is a term that means “A lot.”

The idea that one can only become a great artist after reading ten thousand volumes and journeying ten thousand leagues, means that one must be filled with knowledge AND experience of the world, in order to paint a true interpretation of the world.

They did not travel to gain a greater reputation for themselves.
They were not interested in fame, nor in seeking fortune.
They believed in being obscure, well read, humble, creative and introspective.

These master painters believed that the first-hand experiences gained in their constant travels were necessary to paint excellent landscapes.
They believed that one could only learn the true nature of people and infiltrate the supernatural nature of Creation, through travel.

They called their landscapes, “True Views Of Mount….,” or True Views Of The ……. River.”
“True” means that they had actually hiked up the mountain and thus were able to bring to the painting the feelings they had while on top of the mountain, or while looking across the mountain pass.

I have always wanted to use my world travels as inspiration for my art.
But somewhere along the way, the love of travel took over, and my time in the studio has shrunk.

Maybe one day it will be different, but for now and for the last two decades, I have felt a strong inner urge to roam the earth.
Travels have turned into pilgrimages, walked in search of enlightenment.

While we were in Kyoto, on a very rainy Sunday, we visited an exhibition by a Japanese painter named Ikè no Taiga (1723–1776).
Taiga was inspired by the ancient Chinese literati painters.

Born in Kyoto to a minor official of the silver mint, Taiga lost his father while still a young child.
He began to study calligraphy, and also became a self taught painter.

Taiga started out by making a living selling fans that he had painted in a shop in Kyoto.
He used picture books imported from China as the inspiration for his painted fans.

There were a few reasons I was eager to see the work of Taiga up close.
For one, he taught himself to paint using Chinese painting manuals, the same ones I have collected while traveling in China.
I have used these painting manuals in my art and have learned a lot from them.

I used to return from our trips to China with many instruction books, which I still use as references for my art.

The second reason that I was intrigued to see Taiga’s art is that he painted the 500 Arahats (Enlightened students of the Buddha), which has been my life long dream to paint.

In 2012, the world renowned Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, completed his own whimsical painting of the 500 Arahats.

Takashi Murakami‘s 500 Arahats, done in acrylics on canvas that is mounted on board, measures 302 x 10,000 cm and is perhaps one of the largest paintings in the world.
It is also a very good painting, depicting the old, humble, wise and enlightened Arahats, in a fun way.

You see, these enlightened Arahats were not superhuman beings.
They were ordinary men and women who knew that we are all unlimited Spirits, and not limited physical beings.
Then, with a commitment to the practice of Truth, they spent their lifetimes living by these principles.
They became humble and luminous, by trial and error.
Their life experiences humbled them, and the Spirit of joy filled their hearts with real optimism.

I am not yet sure how I wish to paint my own Arahats.
All I know for now is that at least half of them will be females.

As to the exact painting methods, whether I will paint them on multiple long scrolls, or on multiple large canvases, I am not yet sure.
I guess I will have to start this long journey and begin painting, looking for clarity as I go along.

To be honest, painting in my studio is the main reason I am eager to go home to Colorado.
Otherwise, I could continue roaming the earth without missing anything, as long as I am with Jules.
There is nothing that I miss at home.

The third reason I was eager to see Taiga, was because he was an inveterate traveler, who used his travels to paint truer views of the landscapes he painted.

Taiga started traveling as a young man, mostly trying to sell the painted fans that he had made.
There were times when, even after traveling long distances, he would return home without having sold a single fan.
This is something I have also experienced.
I did some very successful art shows, but I too traveled at times across America, to do art shows where I did not sell a single painting.

To be honest with you, even now, whenever I have a very disturbed sleep, I have dreamt of being in an art show where nobody likes my art and then going home feeling disheartened and sad.
It is a recurring nightmare for me.

Even though I love the style of Chinese ink brush paintings, I am not interested in using this style in my art.

I keep the use of ink to the background of my paintings, when I work on paper scrolls.
I have used ink in my Shibuya portrait series and in my Divine guardians paintings.

But when I examined Taiga’s style, inspired by the Chinese Masters, I could see some techniques I could apply to my oils and acrylics paintings, which I am going to paint next in my studio.

His use of space in the canvas was very interesting.
Normally, when painting a body of water like a lake or the sea, it is painted horizontally, but Taiga and the Chinese masters painted some of it at an angle, as if the water would slide off the paper into the mountains or the borders of the sky.

Many times, the water and the sky were just left empty, or white, with only a tiny boat to indicate that this was a body of water.

This Chinese-influenced literati style of painting was known in Japan as “Nanga” (“Southern painting”).
Taiga’s works are done in a brisk, unfettered style said to exemplify the artist’s humble character, and his indifference to fame and fortune.

Many of us could not really tell the differences between some of the old artists who worked in the same Chinese ink painting style.
Some of them are very distinctive, while most of them were influenced by the same painting manuals, and never ventured out of those painting styles to work in a very different way.

Being different and unique was not as important as living a creative life with all the benefits that an artistic and poetic life has to offer to the inner being.

Another reason I was excited to see Taiga’s work is because, like him, I also had a period of time in which I did finger paintings, searching for my own artistic style.
I put aside my brushes and wide collection of pallet knives, and used mostly my (gloved) fingers to shape the oils and acrylic paints I was using.

In the Kyoto Art Museum, the signs said that Taiga used finger painting in his quest for his artistic style.

It said that Taiga often produced paintings using his fingers and fingernails instead of a brush.
The tradition of finger painting (called Shibokuga or Shitōga in Japanese), which came from China, was pioneered in Japan by the literati artist Yanagisawa Kien (1703–1758) as a highly impromptu genre―a sort of improvisational performance art.

In truth, using fingers to manipulate liquid ink greatly restricts the artist’s representational abilities, giving much less freedom of expression than one would have had when painting with a brush.

While not the same as painting with a medium like oils and acrylics, finger paintings are more a form of freedom from exact representation and an expression of the joy of painting, rather than a focus on a perfectly “correct” painting.

I do not know how my phase of finger painting helped shape my own artistic style, but the sign said that for Taiga, it was a milestone in his struggle to establish his own mode of artistic expression.

A part of the exhibition focuses on Taiga’s extensive travels throughout Japan as an itinerant painter.
It explained the influence of these wandering days on his artistic development.

The young Taiga learned painting techniques from classic Chinese painting manuals.

Two of these classic manuals are called, “The Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden,” and “Primer On The Eight Varieties of Painting.”

The Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, in particular, served as both a source for images and also for theories of painting and techniques.

Artists at that time learned to copy the manual’s images of nature and people, in order to learn how to render nature and movement in the classical way.
The book was utilized as a practical guide to painting.

The common belief was that, “An artist must always be aware of the Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden.”

Many artists before Taiga regularly consulted manuals and studied pictorial composition from printed manuals of this sort.

At the time, there were very few opportunities for ordinary artists (“Machi Eshi,” in Japanese) to even see high-quality Chinese paintings.

But some traveled to see great artworks for inspiration.
It is believed that Taiga traveled to see Wang Zhenpeng’s painted scrolls of the Five Hundred Arahats, before painting his own version.

Wang Zhenpeng was a Chinese landscape painter who worked in the imperial court during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).

Though he lived 500 years before Taiga, Wang Zhenpeng’s scroll of the Five Hundred Arahats was a particularly important artwork, and it had a direct effect on the creation of Taiga’s own Five Hundred Arahats.

I have researched the “Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden” (芥子園畫傳, Jieziyuan Huazhuan, also known as Jieziyuan Huapu 芥子園畫譜).

It is said that this printed version of this manual of Chinese painting was compiled during the early Qing Dynasty, from earlier manuals.

Many renowned Chinese painters began their drawing lessons with the manual. It is an important early example of colour printing.

It is easy to see how those artists who studied it, produced early artwork that is very similar in style.

It takes a lifetime to develop your own unique style as an artist.

I am looking forward to spending time in my studio again.
It makes the thought of going home something to look forward to.

I know it will not be easy to paint again.
It takes a lot of practice to get going again.
It is as if my fingers that hold the brush do not obey my mind.
It takes me time to get back into the studio and feel comfortable there.

Once, the famous British artist, Damien Hirst, described his color spot paintings, made by many of his assistants at undisclosed locations.
He said, “They’re all a mechanical way to avoid the actual guy in a room, myself, with a blank canvas.”

I know how he feels, and I know it will be the same for me….
Myself, lots of time and the blank canvas….
It is a new journey, all by itself…

With love and warm blessings,

Photography was not allowed in the museum, so I am adding some photos from our time in Kyoto instead.

Afterthoughts about walking the Nakasendō, and Seeing Butoh in Kyoto



Afterthoughts about walking the Nakasendō, and Seeing Butoh in Kyoto

Almost two weeks have passed since we finished walking the Nakasendo.
It feels like a lot longer time has passed since then.

The first thing we did after finishing our long walk was to settle into our comfortable apartment hotel in Kyoto.
We rented it for only two weeks, and every morning we attend JALS, the Japanese language school in the center of Kyoto.

The breakfast food I craved most while walking the Nakasendō was a simple bowl of oatmeal with fresh fruit, nuts and raisins.
We have had oatmeal every morning since we arrived in Kyoto.
I have also enjoyed making our own food, which mostly means making a bowl of salad with a baked sweet potato or some other cooked vegetables.

This simple food agrees with me now.
We also drink almost every day a glass of fresh grapefruit juice, which is in season now in Japan.

Kyoto is truly a great place.
Even though it is a big city, it is composed of many small neighborhoods.
Some of them are ancient and well known, while others are less well known but still quite interesting, with many craft stores that line the Main Street, and local bathhouses that still burn wood for their hot baths.

The train or a convenient bus can take you a bit further out of town to many interesting places, like the seat of ancient Buddhism in Nara, the tea plantations in Uji, the amazing Fushini Imari Shrine where 10,000 vermillion Tori gates are placed along the mountainside, and many others.

There is everything modern that you might need, alongside the ancient.
The city is dotted with over 1600 Buddhist temples and nearly 500 Shinto Shrines.

Some of these temples are family owned and are still places where people come to pray, to bless births and deaths, to marry and to find solace.

Some of these ancient temples are over 1800 years old, and are important cultural properties or World Heritage sites.

These temples are no longer places for Buddhist study, and there are no congregations of living nuns and monks.
They are preserved as historical museums, and are open to the public for a fee.
People come to stroll in the beautiful Japanese zen gardens and to enjoy the serene harmony of the place.

I have visited some of these temples through the years, and I continue to visit some of them.
For me, these temples are sanctuaries for the soul, encouraging me to remember the Buddhist concept of “Pure Land Paradise.”

Japan often takes my breath away.
I have truly enjoyed our two weeks in Kyoto.

We ate in many interesting places, most of which were not listed on TripAdvisor.
We ate at a vegan ramen place, named Towzen, with really good ramen with Yuba (tofu skin) and soy meat, and pressed eggplant sushi, which was amazing.

We ate a lovely tofu Kaiseki meal with many preparations of tofu, inside a quiet old temple.
We also found a great salad place (called Harvest Days) which makes large salads combining fruits and vegetables.
And finally we got to see a performance of Butoh.

Butoh (舞踏 Butō) started in Japan in the 1950’s.

It is a form of modern dance combined with a non verbal theatre performance that encompasses the spiritual, with an emotional and mental range of movements and techniques.

The tiny Kyoto Butoh theater, located inside a Kura (renovated grain storehouse from the Edo Period), could only seat eight people.

We were told to use the toilet in a nearby convenience store before the performance, because there is no toilet inside the storehouse.

The room was first made completely black, and the dancer, who had white powder on his face and initially was wearing all white, was illuminated by a single dim light.

The Butoh art form, founded by Hijikata Tatsumi, is known to “resist categorizing and rigidity.”
Butoh includes playful and grotesque imagery, dealing with taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow, hyper-controlled motion.

However, nowadays Butoh is being performed around the world, with various new aesthetics, ideals and intentions.

In the darkness that descended on the theater, the dancer took off his clothes and performed the rest of the piece with a traditional Noh mask, which was tied to his genitals.

The performance was called “Anti Gravitation,” and it was wonderful, in a provocative way.
In the dark theater, his body swirled and the mask created the impression that it was a new creature, who was dancing and crawling, flying and moving in a most interesting way.
The creature’s arms were the dancer’s legs and the creature’s legs were the dancer’s arms.

The face of the mask had the traditional Japanese white powdered face with black dyed teeth and shaved eyebrows.

This curious way to do makeup, that was so popular in Japan for hundreds of years, is just another reminder of how beauty trends change and how foolish it is to be upset if your body type does not fit the current trend.

Think about it, for many hundreds of years, the upperclass beauties of Japan shaved their eyebrows and applied dark powder to the upper parts of their foreheads.
They also dyed their teeth black and applied a white powder to their faces.

This beauty routine was done mostly by high class women (and sometimes by men.)
The upper class did not work in the fields or in workshops and thus were obsessed with their appearance.

This beauty routine was finally banned when Japan opened its gates to the world and foreigners seemed frightened by the black teeth, brow-less white powdered ghostlike “beauties.”

While watching the performance by Butoh artist Fukurozaka Yasuo, I was thinking about how perfect his body was in every way.

He was not a very young man, nearing his 50’s, yet his body was a model of perfection.
He had no moles, no fat, no age spots, no sagging, no cellulite, no wrinkles, nothing but a perfectly smooth skin and perfect muscle tone from head to toe.

He did not look like a body builder or a dancer who trains for many hours.
His muscles did not bulge out like the arms of body builders.
His body was lean and perfect.

I felt like I was watching an ideal of how a human body can be, if we allow the Divine inner harmony to freely stay in the physical, creating a smooth and perfect instrument that is as amazing as a painting.

Our bodies are critical to living the life that we want.
Without a great and healthy body, we are limiting the possibilities in our lives.
This means that with a sickly or heavy body, you cannot hike, walk pilgrimages or do many of the things your mind and Spirit might be excited about doing.

Since we shape our bodies by the choices that we make, we can learn how to make them better instruments.
Drinking, smoking, overeating, taking drugs and supplements are all ways to weaken the body, as is not moving enough, not living in Harmony, or having low morals and telling lies. Gossiping, harboring resentments and not forgiving the past and everyone in it also lead to bodies that harbor weak personalities and thus are clubby and unhealthy.

Don’t settle for a body, and thus for a life, that is less than what you want and what you deserve…. go for the gold……It is a real possibility….. I have seen it in this Butoh dancer…..

“So what’s next?,” everyone has asked us.

We have decided not to walk the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage in Japan this time.
We want to walk not the short version, which can be completed in a few days to a few weeks, but the whole way, as it was done by the royal family at the time of its origination.

The royal family walked from Nara, just south of Kyoto, all the way to the Kumanonachi Taisha Shrine, located in Higashimuro-gun, in Wakayama-ken.
They walked in search of serenity, enlightenment and inner harmony, which they believed they could find in the remote mountains.

But we have decided to do only one big pilgrimage per year, and I have been itching to walk the Camino as our next pilgrimage.
Jules wants to walk one of the long Caminos, starting in Paris or Rome, and walking all the way to Compostela.
I am eager for next spring to come, so we can walk it all the way from Paris to Spain.
Having been in Europe so many times, especially in France, Italy and Spain, it feels like going home to me.
I can hardly wait…

But what is next for us now?
Well, I have looked at the map of the world a few times, for over a week, trying to decide…

I was thinking of going backpacking in Vietnam for a month, diving in the Philippines or in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, or continuing to travel around Japan, but nothing seemed to appeal to me.
We have four very large bags that we brought from New Zealand after we sold our house there, and storing them for a long period has been a bit of a problem, but when I looked at all our options, I decided that the best thing to do…. is just to go home to Colorado.

And so it was decided.
After our Japanese language school is over, we will travel around Japan for another week, enjoy some hiking, sightseeing and hot spring Onsens, and then go home to Colorado.

We have given up on the return tickets that we had booked before we sold our house, to go from Japan to Auckland, New Zealand, and then from Auckland to Colorado, and instead booked a one way ticket home.
In the future, we vowed not to book return tickets, but just one way tickets on long trips, to avoid such a waste.

So what do we think about walking the Nakasendo?

It was an amazing experience not to be missed.
Like all long pilgrimages, there were hard days and easy days, beauty and boredom, challenges and routine, moments of insights and brain fog, desperation and joy, laughter and pain.

The old is now blended with the new.
It is the foundation on which the New is grown.

The past is not more beautiful than the present.
In the past the roads did not have cars and trucks, but they were dusty and hard to travel on, with no running water, electricity, or ice cream to ease the hardships of the pilgrims.

This is why I am adding to this post some Gif photos of the new, embedded on top of the beautiful old woodblocks of Hiroshige who painted the old Nakasendō.

The long walk has left me hungry for more…. more walks, more challenges.
I can’t wait for the next time we strap on a (light) backpack, and go roaming this beautiful planet….

When I have some time, I will write some thoughts about art and painting, inspired by my last weeks in Kyoto.

With many blessings,


Day 32 – Walking the Nakasendō, Japan – Finally, We Cross The Sanjō Ōhashi Bridge In Kyoto, The End Of Our Journey

Day 32 – Walking the Nakasendō, Japan – Finally, We Cross the Sanjō Ōhashi Bridge in Kyoto, the End of our Journey

Today we finally arrived in Kyoto, the final destination of this foot pilgrimage, that began in Tokyo 32 days ago.

We had walked every inch of the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto, (Beside taking transportation to our hotels.)
We walked through the Central Japanese Alps, up and down mountains, across rivers and through small towns and big cities.

It was a grey and rainy day when we crossed the Sanjō Ōhashi bridge in Kyoto.
I had tears in my eyes.

We had been walking from Ōtsu, the 69th and last post town of the Nakasendo, since early morning, trying to outpace the rain.

Along the road from Ōtsu to Kyoto, we passed by a small road with a few traditional eel restaurants, wedged nowadays between the highway and the crisscrossing trains.

The mountains surrounding the ancient capital of Kyoto, full of Buddhist temples, were all around us, but the busy roads were noisy and a layer of smoke and years of car soot were on the trees.

It is amazing to me that some people can continue living near such noisy roads and passing trains.

It is what I would call, “The Benli Curse.”
The Benli Curse has blinded Japanese people to a very unwholesome way of living, as long as it is Benli.

“Benli” is a Japanese word that means “Convenient.”

Once, when I still thought that I wanted to buy a house in Japan, I was looking at a lovely house that I had found on the Internet.
I emailed the real estate agent for more information.

She answered by saying that the location of the house, was not “Benli,” meaning that it was not located near a subway or a train station.

It was not a Benli location, and that was that.
She did not want to give me any more information about the house, because she believed I would not like being far from the train, and probably would not be able to resell the house.

Modern Japanese people have learned to value convenience more than anything.
New apartment buildings advertise how many EXACT minutes on foot they are located from the train station.

A bus is very inconvenient, and thus not considered Benli.

And even though the passing high speed trains make the walls and windows of the houses shake as they speed by, people buy them because they are Benli.

What happened to the soul of the Japanese people who once built Buddhist temples and shrines on top of the most remote mountains, KNOWING full well that the silence was healing, and enriching, and pure gold for the human soul…

They knew quiet and purity can only be attained away from the crowds and the noise and for this, they gladly “sacrificed” convenience for the rewards of inner peace…

The Nakasendō finally veered away from the busy road to a secondary road, and before our last crossing of the mountains into Kyoto, we stopped at a neighborhood bakery that made mostly cheesecakes.

We had good coffee and mini cheesecakes on the second floor of their tea room, sitting on French Louis the 14th Style furniture surrounded by Swiss decor.

The path to Kyoto skirts the mountains that surround Kyoto.
We saw many signs to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, located up above the road, near the peaks of these mountains.

We came down the hilly route, to walk along a wide city street that eventually, after several kilometers, came to the Sanjō bridge that signified the end of our pilgrimage.

Entering the city of Kyoto on foot, following the Nakasendō, which is now merged with the old Tōkaidō road, was a bit gentler and less overwhelming than entering a big city by plane or by train.

Still, seeing so many people walking on the sidewalks everywhere was a bit overwhelming.
Tourists with umbrellas did what tourists always do around the world.
They walked the streets, took selfies of themselves in front of temples, posed at the entrances to cafes, photographed their food, sent Facebook and Line (very popular in Japan) updates to their friends.
It all felt so strange….

And then it dawned on me….
We are no longer pilgrims….
We have just entered the mainstream of society again….
A society that is focused on its many anxieties, appearances, comforts, ambitions and ease….
I had tears in my eyes….

What are we racing for….
An endless race towards more illusions……

We asked a lovely older couple to take our photo at the Sanjō Ōhashi Bridge.
They saw that I had tears in my eyes, and I explained that we had just finished walking from Tokyo to Kyoto along the Nakasendo road.

They asked how long it took us, and we said 32 days.
We just finished, right here and right now….
Why am I so emotional?
Why do I have tears in my eyes…

Entering busy society did not feel good.
I love walking for long hours with my own thoughts, despite the pack on my shoulders and the difficulties of the trail.

Restaurants were packed without an available seat, people waited in long lines, all seemed so preoccupied with trivialities…..putting so much emphasis on temporal, meaningless things….

I think after this long walk, I need to be in an isolated place, not in a busy city like Kyoto.
But we have booked two more weeks of stay in Kyoto, so I will have to adjust my inner attitude.

In his book “Tramp – the art of living a wild and poetic life,” the Norwegian writer Tomas Espedal wrote about his life as a long distance walker and a wanderer.

Although he was not looking for higher consciousness or enlightenment, I love his stories about his wandering life.

Something he wrote in that book has stuck in my mind.
He said that after he finished a long pilgrimage, he looked in the mirror, and he KNEW that he had arrived.

He had arrived because he looked nothing like his old self.
After a long time on the road, he looked unshaven, disheveled, unkempt, someone else, a stranger to himself…..

Today I feel the same.
I feel nothing like myself and I do not look the same, when I look in the mirror.
I am sunburnt, and road weary….

But it is OK with me, not to look like myself
A personality is noting to be proud of, nothing that I AM proud of.
If today I am different, then it is a good thing… I too, have arrived…

With my humble love, a bit of tears and gratitude,
Tali (and Jules, who is not in tears and somehow, looks a bit better than he did before…)

Day 32 – Stats:
Total walking time 4.5 hours
Active walking time 3.5 hours
Total steps: 18,456 steps
Daily Kilometers: 13.5 Kilometers
Total Kilometers walked on the whole Nakasendo: 717 Kilometers

Do not let anyone tell you the popular myth that Nakasendo is 524 Kilometers long!
It is 717 Kilometers from the Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo (Tokyo) to the Sanjō Bridge in Kyoto.

Total elevation climbed today 679 meters
Total descent today 741 meters
Maximum Altitude reached today 171 meters

Stations Visited In Shiga Prefecture
69. Ōtsu-juku (Ōtsu) (also part of the Tōkaidō)

Started walking from Tokyo at Nihonbashi Bridge on April 1st 2018 finished walking at the Sanjō Ōhashi Bridge in Kyoto on May 2nd 2018