Todd Frederick

Neighbors with No One Else

The mountains, rivers, and clouds of Schwaberow’s Neighbors point toward their own reality in a way that is characteristic of Zen Buddhism. These natural elements serve as guides to help the viewer break away from their ordinary outlook on the world and move closer to the Buddhist goal of enlightenment. This depiction of nature does not leave viewers to their own devices in attaining this freedom; Zen involves a discipline that one must follow to reach a direct recognition of reality. The isolation of the natural subjects in Schwaberow’s print helps the viewer to embrace this discipline. By considering each of the objects separately, one can appreciate the way in which they simply exist. Even in dialogue with each other and the accompanying poem, the natural elements resist any effort to attract any real meaning from outside themselves. This print, by carefully de-emphasizing the potential for its natural subjects to have abstract meaning, expresses a distinctly Zen attitude toward its subject.

As Buddhism is the path toward enlightenment, Zen involves the attainment of enlightenment through meanings that are not at all apparent in the everyday world. One might ordinarily be tempted to bring added meaning to even the simplest of objects, but the discipline of Zen rejects this tendency until one sees things as they really are. This direct understanding of an object is its isness. Any given object exists only as itself and any further attempt to reflect upon it or intellectualize it would destroy any significance the object might have in bringing one toward enlightenment. While the cryptic quality of typical Zen sayings may appear to lend itself to this unwanted line of deep thinking, they are actually intended to have the opposite effect. Direct actions are preferable to long-winded sermons. Practitioners of Zen focus on experiences, manual labor for example, rather than extensive reflection on so-called dead words of the past. The emphasis on a direct approach to reality leads naturally into artistic expression. The artist conveys a reality that cannot be reduced to simpler forms of logical expression, just as a practitioner of Zen cannot reduce the isness he perceives into a more basic expression of thought. Zen scholar Daisetz Suziki observed how much the artist and the Zen practitioner share in common: “The artist’s world is one of free creation, and this can come only from intuitions directly and immediately rising from the isness of things, unhampered by senses and intellect. He creates forms and sounds out of formlessness and soundlessness. To this extent, the artist’s world coincides with that of Zen” (17). Most any artistic endeavor could potentially have a Zen quality to it, but art expresses Zen discipline the more it emphasizes the isness of its subject.

Schwaberow’s print portrays three distinct subjects that each express their own state of isness. The first element is the cloud that hangs perilously over the rest of the print. Though it has the greatest vertical prominence, it is a minor element. With its neutral shade, the cloud seems to be indecisive on whether it is present or absent. Still it is not simply an ornament for the other subjects of the print. The cloud never touches the mountain; rather it seems to form an outline of a third mountain peek as if to hint at a state of being it is hesitant to actually take. The second subject, a river, conveys its simplicity differently. This river winds down the mountain slope in no particular way. It is at the same time advertising its presence and willing to admit its commonplace quality. One would practically expect a river to be flowing down a mountain, and so the presence of this river is not a surprise. With the river’s central placement in the print, it is impossible to miss, and so its expected, ordinary isness is emphasized. Comparative religions expert Frederic Spiegelberg noted the importance of such simple, everyday realities: “The lotus flowers of the Taj Mahal may be uplifting for the life of the spirit, but what slams one right on the nose with the bare fact of existence is the indomitable mediocrity of trampled little weeds on the side streets of Hong Kong, in a Danish villiage, or amidst the gasoline fumes in a downtown New York park” (38). One cannot deny the being of a river, but neither is one tempted to read unnecessary meaning into something so run of the mill.

Two mountains are the final subject of the print, as well as the primary subject of the accompanying poem. Though mountains do not traditionally figure in Zen symbolism, rocks usually do. Seeing mountains simply as rocks can clarify the fundamental character of their being. Rocks are a stereotypical symbol of persistence and steadfastness. When no outside meaning is attached to rocks, they are persistent only in their own act of being. A rock’s physical existence is relatively hard to defy, and so a rock’s isness demands to remain uncompromised. Stafford’s poem expresses the boldness of the mountains in Schwaberow’s print: “These mountains do their own announcements.” The mountains do not rely on any outside entity for their existence, they are strong enough to be themselves and no more or less. Even the title of the work supports the Zen isness of the mountains. As objects they do not actually have grandeur or overarching power over the world, rather they have only themselves to provide their significance. Only a mountain can define a mountain: “They introduce each other.” The mountain is its own meaning, and the number of mountains is irrelevant just as the number of small rocks the mountains are made of is irrelevant. Schwaberow’s print confirms that the mountains are dependent only upon themselves. They do not rest on any surface; in fact they are abruptly cut off from any surrounding landscape. The two peaks tilt and lean, but only on each other.

In emphasizing the independence of the mountains in his print, Schwaberow communicates the isness of the mountains. Just as the two mountains stand alone with only themselves as neighbors, so do they stand alone in being with only themselves to be their own meaning. There isn’t too much to say about these mountains, and the simplicity of Schwaberow’s work cautions the viewer not to make an elaborate metaphorical connection with them. Yet the rough, jagged lines of the woodcut insist on being visible–the two rocks demand to exist.



Spiegelberg, Frederic. Zen, Rocks, and Waters. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1962.

Suzuki, Daisetz. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.

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