Josetsu’s “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd”
An Iconic Painting. . .
It’s called Catching a Catfish with a Gourd (in Japanese it’s called the Hyonenzu / 瓢鮎図). It was painted c. 1413 (during the Muromachi Period, 1336-1573 – depending on who’s counting) by Zen Priest Josetsu (如拙) of Kyoto’s Taizo-in Temple. Its current home is the Kyoto National Museum of Art although it’s still considered temple property.
I was introduced to Catching a Catfish with a Gourd in September 1984, in a Japanese Art History class at Kansai Gaidai in Hirakata, Japan. I’m just one of 100s and 100s of thousands (probably millions) who over the past 600 years have fallen for this painting, and its sublime and profound lessons. Catching a Catfish with a Gourd offers what we today call a “teaching moment.”
It’s not only a beautiful painting, it’s humorous, mischievous, inspirational and offers-up a wince-making pun and perhaps even mildly scolds us when we tell ourselves something just can’t be done. It’s sort of a pictorial koan. Here’s a link to just the painting so you can study it and the question of how can one catch a catfish with a gourd.
. . . from an Emperor’s Riddle
The story behind Catching a Catfish with a Gourd begins with Emperor Ashikaga Yoshimochi’s enjoyment of koans and patronage of Kyoto’s monastic arts. It was the Emperor who commissioned Josetsu to paint the somewhat nonsensical riddle, “How does one catch a catfish with a gourd?” The result of that commission is Josetsu’s iconic work of art and spiritual punnery.
What’s more, Emperor Yoshimochi directed Josetsu’s fellow priests to weigh-in on the question, to bend their brains and imaginations to answer the question. And the result of that directive was 31 poems from 31 Zen Buddhist priests from Kyoto’s most acclaimed Zen temples, each poem taking a stab at answering the riddle. There’s no perfect answer. I have my favorite one, though. A hint: perspective can make the difference in virtually everything. Originally the painting, when presented to the Emperor, was mounted onto a small, Chinese-style standing screen, with the poems affixed to the screen’s reverse side. Soon thereafter the painting and complementary poems were remounted onto a single hanging scroll.
The Hyonenzu in scroll form — 43 7/8 x 29 7/8 in (111.5 x 75.8 cm) — with the 31 “answer poems” mounted above. Note the red seal of each priest at the bottom of his poem:
Detail in black and white:
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Post Script: another hint to my favorite answer to the riddle is found in a Grateful Dead song, “Scarlet Begonias” . . .
“Once in a while you can get shown the light
In the strangest of places, if you look at it right.”