The Plenitude: ‘It neither is, nor isn’t.’

‘It neither is, nor isn’t.’

One ancient poem ends that way.

In other words:

something can both exist and not exist at the same time.

Indeed, thoughts and feelings arise in our minds only to flicker away–

they are



But we can argue:

they exist.

Then again, if one claims otherwise, this too seems to bear a kind of truth.

We are strange creatures

who think and vacillate, vacillate and think,


throughout our lives.

People thought up [Chinese] characters . . . [to] refer to completion,

but surely

no one has ever actually experienced that.

If so,

it could only have been in a provisional way.

In reality,

all things continue


in perpetuity.

(Link to the Japanese version, here)

(Toko Shinoda)

It was a rabbit-hole of a poem and I sat staring at it positioned in front of a looking glass in the salon, called, happily enough under the circumstances of an enchantment, Slow Life. I always read this (very smart) magazine that the shop offers, backward. I save the best for last. This piece was on the last page. I stared at the page for the longest time. It transfixed my attention. At the same time I was unmoored, afloat, away (with the fairies and yet also) fully present. The words breezed in; I was reverberating with them, but not only them: the image had its own particular magnetic power. Was it, maybe, the combination that seduced me?

Shinoda, Mu

The title of the poem, shown in the image [right], is the enigmatic character ‘Mu’ — Nothingness or Emptiness. It is one of the signs (for minds formed in the West) of the apophatic; denoting that which cannot be said in reference to ultimate reality. But to write that even, in my opinion, adds a heaviness to the lines that they do not carry. Only mystics and poets, I think, can make forays on this concept. Christian Wiman’s ‘bright abyss’ springs to mind. Or calligraphers, of whom, it is said,

‘when facing the blank white page before beginning to write, do not ponder how to fill it, but how best to activate it.’


I first encountered a fresh and essential liveliness of the word in calligraphy I could not read or understand. Arabic may have been the fleeting first; the Chinese/Japanese lasting next. I have dabbled in western-style calligraphy but here was something which truly evoked in me the sense: ‘Behold!’ In these brush strokes and shapes, bold, heavy, light and playful, in the controlled mastery of spontaneity, the studied ‘honesty’ of the word made free, there was something recognisable, something true, a source of curiosity, contemplation and wholehearted enjoyment. Perhaps it was the strange attraction of something that I did not, could not know that drew me?

The mark of the Divine in things is preserved by their connection with the world of silence.

( ~ Max Picard)


Imagine my surprise when I began looking for more information about the artist-poet, Toko Shinoda. What an extraordinary woman! She’s 102 years old this year. In the early 1980s, Time Magazine did a story on her in which ‘her trail blazing accomplishments [were considered] analogous to Picasso’s’! She was born in Manchuria and, influenced by her cosmopolitan father’s love of sumi ink painting, calligraphy and Chinese poetry, naturally enough began practicing calligraphy at a very young age. Her rebellious and creative nature steadily became apparent in her calligraphy practice. One writer notes that ‘Shinoda’s deeply independent nature–her core willful strength–is the basis of her unique personality.’ Indeed. She does not accept awards; has never joined an art society or organization; never formally studied under anyone (her father remains her only mentor); has never hired an assistant, taken on a student and she has never married.

‘Although many of her works contain passages and poetry from Chinese and Japanese literature, she came to realize from her foreign audience that it wasn’t necessary to be able to read or understand the meaning of the Chinese characters or Japanese kana syllabary to feel moved by her work. Although many cannot read her calligraphy they can respond. The shapes can be read as abstract forms delving from Shinoda’s own creative emotion — a kind of international language and a truly artistic creation. With this, Shinoda offers the viewer their very own interpretation. “It’s not important for there to be a meaning to my work,” she says. “Viewers can find what they want to see.”‘

(See, Lucy Birmingham Fujii,”Learning Dreaming — Toko Shinoda.” In Asian Art News, January/February 2006 here with some great pics; or, on her website here)

Toko Shinoda, making ink

Toko Shinoda, makes her own sumi (ink) on a Song Dynasty (960-1279) inkstone. Image source: Joan Mirviss Gallery

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