Can one feel the energy of a space? How about the energy of the universe?
Sarah Brayer, an American artist working in both Japan and the US, found this was the unexpected challenge when she was commissioned to create an artwork for the meditation space at Kyoto's Komyo-in temple.
NHK's World, the international service of Japan’s public service TV station, recently aired a “Confluence of Life” segment that focused on the 2022 creation of Brayer’s eight-panel, poured washi paper piece for the temple’s fusuma (vertical sliding panels) that formed the meditation space’s back wall.
Finished fusuma with Brayer’s ‘fluid” design, Komyo-in Temple, Kyoto.Komyo-
in’s abbot had asked Brayer to take on the project. She agreed to take it on, but she struggled for more than a year over what to do. Approaching the project like the stand-alone installations she had previously done, she went into her studio and into nature to sketch dozens of different ideas – waterfalls, cedar trees – anything she felt might be appropriate for the space.
One day the abbot asked her to sit next to him in the meditation space. Unlike the frustration she exhibited earlier, she quieted down. He told her: “It’s important to open your heart to accept all that comes to your mind. Hear the sound of water, but don’t cling to it. You just become at one with it. And sit . . . just like the rocks, the gravel.”
So, Brayer sat, and something changed.
Brayer later explained that while meditating beside the abbot she finally realized that “sensing the space” was important. She felt the flow of the air and heard the water flowing in the garden; she “felt there was energy” coming from behind her where the unfinished fusuma stood.
Suddenly she knew what to do: “Support the practice” of those who came into the space to meditate. The fusuma art piece had to provide supporting energy. As the program narrator notes, Brayer realized that this meant the fusuma needed to “be entirely fluid.”
The rest of the program showed her actually making the panels. She and specially trained artisans poured first one layer of fiber pulp onto a wooden mold and then a second thicker, colored fibrous mixture in various places on top. Brayer’s body engaged fully in making movements with her hands to execute a design depicting muted colored rocks and water.
From a Zen perspective, this is natural, how it should always be. Brayer had to get out of her own way – become empty – to feel the vital energy (ki`ai) of the meditation space.
Only through this approach could she finally actually experience how energy flows throughout the universe: no attachment.
This is how the fusuma became no longer about an artist making art. This is how art comes from Emptiness.