Gatherer of Clouds

Hi Folks:  I’m currently reading the book ‘Gatherer of Clouds‘ bySean Russell, and I wanted to share a few pages that jumped out at me.  In a way it connects to the ‘Becoming a Better Photographer‘ post that I wrote a week or two ago.

The book is set in a mythical Oriental land, somewhere around a thousand years ago I’d say, based on the plotline of the book.  What I’m including here is Chapter 6, pp. 64-68.  I think it’s well worth considering.


“The sculpture garden in the Imperial Governor’s palace had not been created by an artist of great note, but it hardly mattered.  The raw material was so superior in nature that it had almost worked itself.

Shuyun crossed the lotus pattern terrace at the garden’s edge and then paused to admire the late afternoon light that slanted low into the garden.  It created shadows that gave texture to even the most featureless surfaces.  Already Shuyun could feel the stones releasing their warmth to the cooling air.  The sea wind fell to a breath, then gusted, then fell again in a pattern that no man could determine.  It would not be long before the clear northern light began to tug at the edge of the eastern sky.

Shuyun came to the garden to meditate on the sculptures and to purge himself of certain feelings.  Stopping before the Mountain Dragon, he let his eye run over the fluted sandstone.  He felt a certain awe at nature’s work, thinking about the several lifetimes that the elements had scoured and carved this stone.  Working patiently, waiting for a day when an artist would find it.

The artist, a lady-in-waiting of a retired Mori Empress, had set the three stones together in a fashion that, when seen from the north, suggested an animal poised to strike; when seen from the south, however, it appeared to be sleeping.  The low light made the effect far more dramatic than at any other time of day and Shuyun found he was able to bask in the artist’s skill as though seeing it for the first time.

The voice of the waterfall drew him and he wound down the narrow path and across the foot stones toward the sound.  Shuyun had been in the garden  many times and knew the illusion of the cataract twisting down a mountainside was nearly perfect.  The stone was cracked and sculpted in scale to an enormous cliff face and the effect was enhanced by carefully stunted trees, many the work of thirty years and more, let into ledges and cracks.

Shuyun stepped through the final copse before the waterfall and there he found the Lady Okara, paper stretched onto a drawing board on her lap, a brush held idly in one hand.  She started as the monk appeared.

“Please excuse me, Lady Okara, I did not realize you were here.  Please, I did not mean to interrupt your work.”  The painter was dressed in the plainest cotton robes and Shuyun was certain she must be deeply embarassed to be seen so.  He bowed quickly and turned to go.

“Brother Shuyun, do not apologize.  I am hardly working at all.  In truth, I have been sitting here weaving memories for some time.”  She smiled her warm smile.  “Please join me, the light is changing colour by the second.  Have you seen?”

“Pardon me, Lady Okara – have I seen?”

“Ah, you haven’t!  Come, sit down, if you have the time.  This will be worth the short wait.”

Shuyun found a second sitting stone at Lady Okara’s side and took his place dutifully.  Lady Okara was not someone he knew well, but he liked her immeasurably.  He often felt that the ease he felt in her company was the way he would have felt with his own mother had he known her.

The evening sun lit the face of the miniature cliff, throwing every crevice into clear relief, the shadows stretching as the sun fell.  The spray from the falls caught the light and a rainbow appeared.

“Watch the deep rose begin to change now,” Lady Okara said.

Shuyun stretched his time sense in an attempt to see what the artist’s eye would see.  The waterfall slowed, each drop of spray catching the sun in a different way, with a different colour.  Indeed the rock was faintly rose hued; he had not realized this before.

“Rose to deep purple, but watch how many shades it passes through, Brother.  It is a daily miracle, I should think.”

“I have never seen this before, though I come here often.”

Wind rustled the needles of the small pines and the light played among the greens and cast oddly elongated shadows.

“For many, the skills of brush and pigment are more easily learned than the skill of seeing, truly seeing.  I came to Seh largely for this.  Oh, not to see this garden, as lovely as it is, but to learn to see again.”

“Lady Okara,” Shuyun said, nodding toward her half-finished painting, “excuse me for saying so, but I find it difficult to believe that you have forgotten how to see.”

“Ah, Brother Shuyun, it is kind of you to say so, but a good painter, an artist does not see only with the eye.  A skilled journeyman could learn to capture this scene, light and all.  That, I have not lost.  What an artist must seek and try to capture is the part of this setting that occurs within.  What does this beauty evoke in my heart?  In my spirit?  A painter asks that question.  The true skill, the skill that separates an artist from a journeyman, is the ability to find and express that – the part of this scene that exists within.”  She fell silent, as though she had begun to search within even as they spoke.

“You see, Brother, until Nishi-sum came to my home I did not even know that I had lost that skill.  Until I encountered her lovely, open spirit I had thought the skill intact.  But it was gone.  I had lost it by forming habits of seeing and habits of feeling, as well.  It is easily done.  One can form habits in one’s heart as easily as in one’s day-to-day existence.  Cha at dawn, a walk alone at sunset, meditation on the full moon . . . nostalgia, loss, bitterness, comfort.  All of these habits shield us from the other parts of life.  The journey to a new place, encountering people, considering new ideas, different landscapes, risks, excitement, joy . . . disappointment . . . grief.

“From the great palate that life offers I had chosen my colours – good colours, certainly, but few in number – and I had lived with them for many, many years.  My spirit withered slowly in its habits.  When Nishima-sum came to my house, I could see what this had done to my art.

“It is an odd choice to make, to dedicate one’s life to a single pursuit, but if one has made that choice it would be terrible folly to limit what one can do simply because of habit.”  She gestured with her brush.  “Watch this rainbow fade.  Isn’t that wonderful?  As though it had never been.”

She reached down and for several seconds held the tip of her brush in the running water.  “So I have come to Seh, hoping to find a way to open my heart and my spirit to the world again – hoping to revive my art.  I do not know if this is possible: I am not the age of Lady Nishima, after all.  But if there is a way, I must try to find it.

They fell silent again, watching the last light illuminate the miniature mountainside.  Listening to the sound of the water as it fell into the pool and then ran among the stepping stones.

Lady Okara rose suddenly.  “Please, Brother, you have come here for your own purpose.  I grow cold easily and must go inside.  But please, I insist.  I can make my way indoors without an escort.”

Despite her words, Shuyun rose and handed her across the the stepping stones before giving way to her protests and allowing her to continue on her own, disappearing down the path, her plain robes in great contrast to her great natural dignity.

Shuyun returned to the falls and seated himself where Lady Okara had been.  It was almost dark now, the first stars appeared.  He mulled over the painter’s words.  The touch of Lady Kitsura came back to him and hovered at the edge of Lady Okara’s words as though speaking to him in some other language.  He thought of Lady Nishima and how he dreamed of her in the desert, dreamed that he was in her embrace as the Perfect Master had been in the embrace of his bride on the cliff sculpture in Denji Gorge.

All of these spoke to him in their own way.

Words came back to him.  It is an odd choice to make, to dedicate one’s self to a single pursuit, but if one has made that choice it would be terrible folly to limit what one can accomplish because of habit.

The illusion of the mountain waterfall was hidden in darkness now, but the voice of the cataract still spoke, reminding him that Lady Okara had opened her spirit to this wonder.

She explores the nature of illusion, Shuyun told himself, that is her purpose.  Whereas it is my purpose to deny the illusion: yet what is the nature of this thing I deny?  Lady Okara opens her spirit to the world, while I close mine.  Who can say who will learn more in this process?  Lord Botahara did not attain Enlightenment from denial but from exploration – as Lady Okara has said – both from within and without.

This thought unsettled him and all of the voices in his head added to his confusion.  He began a breathing exercise, chanting quietly, then sank himself into contemplation, driving out all the voices and focusing all of his mind on the words of his teachers.

It was the habit of a lifetime.”


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