at Lordly Ease

The quiet sage depicted in this undoubtedly Taoist image seems to have slipped sideways from his more proper and upright meditation to reflect on the flow of the world as it passes by the rocky promontory that makes his seat. In fact this is a named posture in the lexicon of meditation, a settled point between the dignities of sitting and lying, known as… ‘at lordly ease’.

Originally an ink drawing it is reproduced here (somewhat sketchily) from the famous and charmingly named Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, a book first known in the late 1600s in China, added to over the next one hundred and fifty years well into the Qing dynasty, found also in Edo period Japan and late Joseon Korea. Its fascicles comprise text together with many pages of examples in the ways of painting, particularly of nature: of rock formation, of clouds, of hooping boughs, of rain and waves, of bamboo, of vivid studies played in a few deft brush-marks of folk labouring or at rest. It is, as was intended, a ‘how to’ and teacher of painting, yet also a key in readability to viewers of finished works, where individual elements sourced in the manual could be brought together in making a scene, an entire view, so as to be understood that, ‘Here is a farmstead under storm, here an orchard of blossoming plum… Here a misted moonrise, here oxen ploughing’.

Furthermore, examining the image of this monk at lordly ease they might interpret not only the figure in meditation, but also the figure as mountain – in the overall shape, line of the shoulders, or even as mountain landscape – the raised knee and folds in the cloth, where mountain itself is a living representation of meditation, a place of elevation, of refuge, of stillness, of unknowing.

Lastly: it should be noted that the phrase ‘at lordly ease’ is in no wise gendered as to its sense; it is never only masculine. For example many embodiments of compassion, of Kuan Yin in feminine guise, are given this affirming characterisation. You will find three of these pictured at the end of my short article, written 2013 – Retreat, return, backwards-flowing – found elsewhere in these pages.




© March 2023