An Interview with Max Gimblett and Lewis Hyde
LH: I think the breakthrough drawing was the first drawing in the series. When Max first started doing the drawings they were quite traditional and representative. They showed a man and a bull or an ox and a rope and so forth. And, in a way, he had to kind of clear the ground like that. But the first drawing in the set that we now have is, in a sense, two things. One is a skull. A skull is a symbol or an image that is often found in Max’s work. And there is also, in a way, the enso, or the circle. In fact, a skull itself has a circle—the brain cavity of a skull is a round figure. The way the poems are set up, the problem in the first stage of the series is that the ox herder has everything he needs but he feels lost and diluted. The confusion is a mental confusion. It’s the delusion that needs to be seen through. So, in a way, that drawing is more representative than others I’ve seen of the first stage, which is where it’s as if you are lost in your own head. You’ve entered the skull and it’s full of cross roads that lead you endlessly down paths and you can’t figure out which way to go. So the first drawing seems like a wonderful mix—it’s both a gestural Gimblett drawing and accurate to the text.
SM: With that painting and other ones was it obvious to you when it was the one?
LH: Yeah. I remember when I first saw that one, I came in and said, “Oh, now he’s gone through the membrane. Somehow he’s on the other side of this. He’s now working in the true land.” So yes, and there were other drawings that we would puzzle over and come at again, once or twice. One of the things that Max asked one of the teachers was a puzzle about how to do the last drawing. In the traditional series it shows the man who’s come back into the world. So it’s called “Entering the Village With Gift-Giving Hands” or something like that. And often it shows Hotei and somebody else.
MG: A young child.
LH: It’s a little hard to read because it’s not necessarily the characters that were in the beginning. As a representative of coming back into the world because one feels compassion for other sentient beings, it seems almost too literal in many of the traditional drawings. The puzzle was how to do it. Didn’t you talk to Michael Wenger [Zen teacher] at San Francisco’s Zen Center about…
MG: Yeah. Michael Wenger is my teacher. He led me through my vows. He’s a calligrapher. He puts words in his calligraphy. I asked him how many figures in ten and he said two.
LH: But it was also two in relation.
MG: Two in relation is what he said.
LH: It’s important because there is no human relationship in any of the other drawings. There’s a man and there’s an ox and they disappear and so forth. But it’s not about community or society or being in the world with other people. In the end, it is. So it’s kind of sweet, actually. I think the last drawing has two ovals of slightly different size. It’s as if there’s an older guy and a younger guy or a teacher and a student or a man and a woman, I don’t know what. But there’s a relationship there.
MG: I went and saw Susan Postal [Zen teacher at The Empty Hand Zen Center] and said to her I was having trouble with drawings seven through ten. And she said, “Anybody in their body will have trouble with seven through ten. They’re on the other side. You won’t know about them until you’re dead. You’ve proceeded with good faith. You’ve done the first six. Just proceed and accept the results.” Then I went to Roshi Hogan in Byron Bay in Australia and said, “I’m having trouble with the Oxherding drawings.” And he asked, “In your life?”
LH [To Max]: Do you understand that to mean the same thing that Postal said, that if you’re in your life, of course you’re going to have trouble? Or how did you understand it?
MG: I understood that I had the drawings outside of myself pinned on the wall. He wanted me to bring them into my living heart and live them as flesh and blood and draw them out of my hands. But also what you said about Postal is right. So, in the end, I went to three Roshi’s over the seven or eight years to seek advice, quite spontaneously. It was not planned.
RH: Do you two feel as though over time your understanding of the parable has changed and evolved?
LH: Well, a teaching story like this works because it’s endlessly evocative. It’s like parables in the bible or koan study—you can come at it again and again and every time you come at it you see something new and you feel like an idiot that you never saw it before. I wouldn’t be surprised if this continues. It’s confusing on one level because it seems like there are two different ways to read the image of the ox. One is that the ox is the self of appetites that needs to be disciplined, or it’s the mind that wanders around and needs to sit on a zafu. The other way is to see the ox as the true self, the thing you were before you were born. And these seemed to be odds. I think, each reading is right and the fact that they’re at odds doesn’t particularly matter. But then I was amused to think about the drawing where the ox herder and the ox are pulling in opposite directions on a rope. It seems at that point like the ox is the body that’s full of appetites and wants to wander around aimlessly. But I was amused to think that the Chinese is a little unclear. I don’t think this is what means, but it was fun to think that maybe the ox is the true self and once you’ve had a glimpse of it, it begins to discipline you. It’s like it’s got its rope on you. You think you’re disciplining it, but it’s disciplining you. So now we have a single reading of how to think about the ox. It actually is the true self, and after you get a little taste of it, it forces you into practice even though you didn’t you think wanted to.
Image 1: Lewis and Max
Image 2: Max's art studio on the Bowery (right)