Three scrolls

Essays > Personalities

Srajan’s impressions about three very special hand-painted Japanese scrolls.

Over the years, Pravina and I had collected hand-painted Japanese silk scrolls from a friend in Japan. When we moved to Tucson after twelve years in Hawaii, we sold all but three of them: Bodhidharma, Zhang Xu, and Gama Sennin.

Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma Japanese scrollWe loved the depiction of Bodhidharma because it was so different from the usual rough and ready images of the first Chinese patriarch.

Here he looks bewildered to me but other people have voiced other interpretations. What prompted that look? Is he fully awake or just lost? Or is it Bodhidharma during Covid-19?

Osho says about Bodhidharma: “He was a very strange man. If he meets you in the night, you will never go out of your house in the night again. He had such big eyes that, if he looked into you once, that was enough for enlightenment! And his laughter must have been a great laughter because he has a very good, big belly. Even in the statue the belly has ripples.”

Zhang Xu

Zhang Japanese scrollThe scroll of Zhang Xu symbolizes the beauty of the act of losing oneself in the creative process.

Zhang was a Chinese calligrapher of the Tang dynasty, known as one of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.

Legend has it that whenever he was intoxicated, he would use his hair as a brush to perform his art, and upon his waking up, he would be amazed by the quality of those works. He would, however become frustrated at not being able to paint with the same degree of success when sober. Under the excitement of art (and wine), he became oblivious of social expectations, and would often fling off his cap in the presence of princes and nobles. Hence, he came to be known as ‘Zhang the Madman’.

Zhang and his art remind me of a shamanic art performance by Mega.

Gama Sennin

Gama Sennin Japanese ScrollHowever, my personal favorite is Gama Sennin, the Shinto God of Immortality, also called ‘The Toady Sage of Longevity’. He is a benign sage with great magical knowledge about pills and drugs.

Always accompanied by a three-legged toad, he can assume the shape of a toad.  Gama was thought to be able to release his spirit from his body, metamorphose, and fly with the aid of his magical companion. He could also change his skin and become young again.

I love this depiction of Gama Sennin. The sage is gnarly with wild hair yet clean shaven. He carries a peach on a twig with a blossom. Looking up to his right one wonders what his expression reveals. Is he perturbed by his pet toad singing? Or is the toad communicating with the cosmos? Was it a hearty belch to the universe? What does the toad signify? One’s higher self? Or is he the proverbial monkey on the back, the obnoxious mind? Is their relationship contemptuous or harmonious?

Toad medicine

Recently, out of curiosity, we attended a meeting of the Tucson Psychedelic Society. There we learned of ‘toad medicine.” Further research led to Paul Wagner on the “Gaia” website:

If you’ve ever wandered the warmest areas of Arizona, Southern California and northern Mexico, you may have been in the presence of the magical, mystical, psychedelic toad medicine. Loved by shamans and utilized by psychotropic experimenters, this little creature is fast becoming a legend.

The Sonoran Desert spans 120,000 square miles, covers large parts of the southwestern United States, and extends into Mexico. This vibrant area includes over 60 mammal species, 350 types of birds, 20 amphibian classifications, more than 100 families of reptiles, 30+ native fish, over 2000 unique plants, and millions of human beings.

The Sonoran Desert is also host to the amphibian that produces psychoactive toad medicine, otherwise known as Bufo alvarius toad. Why do we care about the Bufo alvarius toad? We care because the glands of our North American salientian friend are filled with the happiest, hippiest, trippiest venom, otherwise known as 5-MeO-DMT.

It may be that DMT makes us able to perceive what the physicists call “dark matter” – the 95 per cent of the universe’s mass that is known to exist but that at present remains invisible to our senses and instruments.

I have viewed a few venom inhalation sessions online. It is a very intense, seemingly painful experience at least at the outset. “Some people moaned, cried or convulsed on their backs,” said one attendee who asked to remain anonymous, citing legal reasons. “Others… started dancing, singing or chanting.”

Once the venom – also called bufo alvarius – wears off, users experience an afterglow that can trigger them to make major life changes. One user described toad venom as “a total fusion with God.”

While I have no interest in indulging in such a drastic experiment it may shed some light on the myth or fable of the Gama Sennin. Is it possible that Tang dynasty alchemists and shamans throughout time may have been experimenting with toad medicine? It seems likely as shamans and psychonauts of today have not held back from investigating wild approaches to the exploration of consciousness.

So, what does the Gama Sennin scroll represent? Could it be the symbol of our great potentiality, our longing for ‘total fusion with God’? Or is the toad merely a wise friend that points us to higher dimensions, nagging us to wake up?

Magic toads aside, it is the whimsy of the painting that enchants. It is the friendship between human and amphibian that delights. Who wouldn’t want to have a magic partner who can teach the secrets of immortality, a friend to fly with?

Related discourse excerpts
Osho and Bodhidharma

Srajan

Srajan is a writer, lover of Asian art and relishes life as a global nomad.

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