I HAVE long been a fan of the Japanese artist known as Hokusai, and particularly of his views of Mount Fuji, which include the famous woodblock prints of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. I have preached on the Great Wave, or, rather, on the Lukan apocalypse: the “signs in the sun, the moon and the stars . . . distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and its waves” (Luke 21.25). The Great Wave is one of the most famous images in the world, with its depiction of Mt Fuji over-towered by cresting bills of water while imperilled boatmen stare blankly from their fragile crafts.
At the end of last month, I visited the Hokusai exhibition in the British Museum, which was focused on a completely different side of the artist’s work: his ink drawings for The Picture Book of Everything, produced in the 1820s. It was a crazy idea, which the artist clearly released. Here are worked-up sketches of domestic scenes and nature observed in a moment: plants, officials, animals, ancient sages, birds, clouds, baskets, gods, mountains. The detail is suggested by the most casual of brush strokes; humour and exuberance burst out everywhere. The secret is in the spaces. Light, liquid, and air are just blanks, their brilliance and dynamism created by the brush strokes that surround them.
Hokusai’s work seems to me to demonstrate that the purpose of art is not to copy nature, but to see in nature something more like art. He wrote that, by the age of 73, he had acquired “some understanding of the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish”, and predicted that, by the time he was 110, “each brushstroke will seem to have a life of its own.”
Hokusai was a Buddhist, a devotee of the Lotus Sutra, which teaches that all paths lead to Buddhahood. One of the most delightful of the drawings is of the Taoist master Zhou Sheng, climbing up a ladder of clouds and seizing the moon, bringing it down to earth for pilgrims to admire.
I found it impossible not to think of the The Great Wave while pondering these beguiling miniatures. Buddhism recognises the suffering that permeates existence. Humor and tragedy are part of our lot, and we must learn to embrace both. Buddhism and Christianity are sometimes portrayed as opposites; Buddhism as fatalistic, Christianity as redemptive.
Yet Christians speak of “this vale of tears”, and of the cross as “our one reliance”, bringing salvation to the cosmos as well as to the human soul. Hokusai’s little boatmen are tossed beyond endurance by the wild sea. Yet the mountain still stands with its snow top, dwarfed but not overwhelmed. The cross is everywhere and inescapable, scored into human experience, and yet our only true hope. Hokusai witnesses to us from the other end of the world.