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 hintperspective 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:

。     。     。

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.”

True, that.

    • Joli Knott
    • April 18th, 2011

    This is really lovely! Thanks for sharing…Haven’t had a chance to read the Hello Kitty post yet but hope to do so soon :))

      • letsjapan
      • April 19th, 2011

      Joli,

      Thanks so much. Am very happy you enjoyed it. This painting is one of the “biggies,” a really iconic work in the Japanese art history world, and certainly in the Zen painting world. But once you’ve studied a little Japanese art history (I have, but I don’t hold myself out to be a scholar or expert!) and have seen this particular work of Josetsu’s a thousand times, one can forget that outside of this particular area of study or art appreciation the work is virtually unknown! So that’s why I wanted to write a little bit about it — and other Japanese cultural icons here and there — on this blog.

      You know, while I’ve never really asked around (I’ll make it a point to now), I’m willing to bet that most Japanese people, not just art historians and scholars of Zen, know this work, at least in passing. I may be mixing up memories but it seems I’ve seen “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd” in this or that ad from time to time (you know, for some brand of toothpaste or copying machines or some other consumer product).

      Yes, please come back often and wade into the past couple years’ front page archives!

      R.

  1. Hi…Kindly allow me to post a poem I wrote on the painting…

    HOW DO YOU CATCH A CATFISH IN A GOURD?

    Right…
    catfish slippery
    gourd slippery
    and I am to catch this catfish

    mountains stand behind
    covered by mist
    mountains have grown
    as have my whiskers
    and my clothes tear and wear out with time
    and I am to catch
    slippery catfish
    with slippery gourd –
    O god
    of streams and mountains!
    how do you catch, dear god of bamboo,
    a catfish in a gourd?

    and the waters flow
    of many monsoons and storms
    and the river has changed its course
    many times
    while I stand here with my gourd
    and myself twisted and turned and all my virility lost
    not a jot closer to my task
    even with the god of riverbanks;
    but all the while this catfish jumps around in the stream
    mocking
    clapping its fins like a pair of hands
    and beating the water with its tail
    and the message it sends is: “Come on! come on!
    Catch me if you can!”

    Right…
    catfish in the waters slippery
    gourd in my hand slippery
    and I am to catch this catfish
    O god of mist and rocks
    how do you catch a catfish in a gourd?

      • letsjapan
      • November 16th, 2011

      Dear Raj,

      I believe you’re the first person to post their own poem here. I’m happy that you’ve R.done so. I like the line, “not a jot closer to my task…” especially.

      R.

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