This painting was inscribed by the Chan (Zen) Buddhist priest Yanxi Guangwen between 1254 and 1256, while he was abbot of Lingyin temple in Hangzhou. The work is an important example of early Chan Buddhist "apparition" painting, so called for its pale, sensitive brushwork.
Depicted here is a famous encounter between the Confucian scholar Li Ao (active ca. 840) and the Chan master Yaoshan. Having heard of the master's reputation, the scholar went to see him but was disappointed and remarked: "Seeing your face is not as good as hearing your name." The master replied: "Would you distrust your eye and value your ear?" Then, pointing up and down, the master indicated that the ultimate reality is in what can be seen, such as "clouds in the sky and water in a vase."
Yanxi Guangwen's inscription on the painting reads:
All moments of enlightenment come in a flash, Why distrust your eye and value your ear? Just as between the water and the clouds, Do not say there is nothing there.
Just as the Chan master used riddles to sharpen the student's perception in spite of distracting hearsay, the Chan painter used a simple and spontaneous, albeit elusive, brush style to capture his fleeting vision of truth.
All moments of enlightenment come in a flash; Why distrust your eye and value your ear? Just as between the water and the clouds, Don’t say there is nothing there. ???? [Seals]: Guangwen yinzhang, Yanxi
全機劈面來，賤目而貴耳。 便是水雲間，莫道無餘事。 住冷泉囗囗 [印]： 廣聞印章、偃溪
 Translation from Maxwell K. Hearn, How to Read Chinese Paintings. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008, cat. no. 13, p. 66.
[ Ellen B. Elliott , Princeton, NJ, 1981; sold to MMA]
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Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. "Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850–1850," November 16, 1994–January 11, 1995.
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New York. China Institute in America. "West Lake and the Mapping of Southern Song Art," September 13, 2001–December 9, 2001.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Great Waves: Chinese Themes in the Arts of Korea and Japan II," March 22–September 21, 2003.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Douglas Dillon Legacy: Chinese Painting for the Metropolitan Museum," March 12–August 8, 2004.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Secular and Sacred: Scholars, Deities, and Immortals in Chinese Art," September 10, 2005–January 8, 2006.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Brush and Ink: The Chinese Art of Writing," September 2, 2006–January 21, 2007.
New York. Japan Society Gallery. "Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan," March 28, 2007–June 14, 2007.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Anatomy of a Masterpiece: How to Read Chinese Paintings," March 1–August 10, 2008.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change," August 21, 2010–January 9, 2011.
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London. Victoria and Albert Museum. "Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700–1900," October 26, 2013–January 19, 2014.
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Suzuki Kei 鈴木敬, ed. Chûgoku kaiga sogo zuroku: Daiikan, Amerika-Kanada Hen 中國繪畫總合圖錄: 第一卷 アメリカ - カナダ 編 (Comprehensive illustrated catalog of Chinese paintings: vol. 1 American and Canadian collections) Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1982, p. 126, cat. no. A17-003.
Fong, Wen C. Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th–14th Century. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, pp. 352–53, 355, pl. 77.
Lee, Hui-shu. Exquisite Moments: West Lake & Southern Song Art. Exh. cat. New York: China Institute in America, 2001, pp. 124–25, cat. no. 34.
Weidner, Marsha, ed. Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001, p. 17, fig. 1.4.
Hearn, Maxwell K. How to Read Chinese Paintings. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008, pp. 66–67, cat. no. 13.
He Muwen 何慕文 (Hearn, Maxwell K.). Ruhe du Zhongguo hua: Daduhui Yishu Bowuguan cang Zhongguo shuhua jingpin daolan 如何读中国画 : 大都会艺术博物馆藏中国书画精品导览 (How to read Chinese paintings) Translated by Shi Jing 石静. Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2015, pp. 314–17, cat. no. 37.
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