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Zenmi – A Taste of Zen: Nantenbō’s Letter

My coworkers and I recently got an inside look at our newest exhibit, Zenmi – A Taste of Zen: Paintings, Calligraphy, and Ceramics from the Riva Lee Asbell Collection from Veljko Dujin, our Curator of Collections. Before the opening, we simply observed the whirring curatorial staff through three weeks of installation.  The exhibit, though, is four years in the making.  Veljko worked with Riva Lee Asbell, the exhibit’s lender, to collect and select the art destined to become part of Zenmi – A Taste of Zen.  Historically, Zenmi is the second exhibit in the United States to focus solely on 20th century Zen art.  It is the first ever to look at lineages of prominent Zen Masters and the students they influenced, and the students they influenced—and so on.

I asked Veljko to describe his favorite pieces in Zenmi.  “They’re like children.  You can’t have favorites,” he balked.  Despite an initial show of diplomacy, Veljko soon rattled off no less than ten of his favorite pieces from the collection: rare tea-scoops, sake cups, a ceramic hand-warmer, and Nantenbō’s Letter, to name a few.

Nantenbō, a prominent Zen Buddhist monk of the early twentieth century, wrote the letter in response to a dignitary’s request for his schedule in upcoming months.  He enclosed a two-page itinerary, maintained by both Nantenbō and his personal assistant, outlining multiple trips between Osaka, the location of his home temple, Kaisei-ji, and Tokyo throughout the spring of 1914.  Today, this trip takes no more than four hours by train.  Then, Veljko estimates it took Nantenbō no less than seven hours.  Zen Masters are not known for their jam-packed travel schedules, and even less-so in the early 1900s than now.  Nantenbō, however, oversaw 100 training halls in temples throughout Japan.  He had friends in prominent places; his presence was sought after.  Nantenbō’s itinerary includes a legend on the right hand side: a square next to an activity denotes the trip’s primary purpose, while a triangle next to an activity translates loosely to, “while we are there.”

Sometimes, Nantenbō’s schedule changed.  Written corrections in red, in both Nantenbō’s handwriting and his assistant’s, scatter the pages.  When an update in travel plans required more than a red-penciled note, Nantenbō’s assistant pasted a thin piece of washi (Japanese paper) over the erroneous kanji and began again.

Whether you find Nantenbō’s letter fascinating or forgettable, it is a rare glimpse into the intimate, if not mundane details of a Zen Master’s life.  Come see, and tell us what you think.

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