Choosing Images for a Book

I remember being struck dumb when the publisher at Sumeru asked if my book would have any images.  The thought hadn’t occurred to me.  But once it did . . . .

It’s easy to toss a handful of eye-candy into your writing and assume it’s going to make everything a lot better.  Doing it thoughtlessly, however, is pretty pointless.  The point of an image is to convey that which is hard to understand with words alone.

Some may insist that a picture is worth a thousand words, and thereby signal a secret wish to do without words.  But a picture’s value, whether at the wholesale price of 1,000 words or the New York stock exchange value of 100,000 is only that–a relational value, a worth of words, that the ancient Chinese knew full well, anointing their extraordinary works of ink with poetry, the words of ink–and of blood and brain.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace, 1901. (Photo credit, Wikipedia)
Tian An Men, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, 1901. (Photo credit, Wikipedia)

Today, it’s very expensive to reproduce art in print.  You have to pay “subventions” fees to rights holders, and that doesn’t begin to address the added production cost of color images in a book that is otherwise black and white.

So you have to choose your images carefully.  They have to “work” in black and white, if possible; they have to be public domain, if possible; and they definitely have to provide added value to whatever it is you have to say.  In The Driftwood Shrine, I was fortunate to find an old, public domain image that helped me explain to my readers the Chinese cultural concept conveyed by the word “gate”; it isn’t something you swing wide while trundling through with the wheelbarrow.  A “gate” is a wall.  A barrier.  Thus, the ancient collection of meditation objects that has been known for the past several centuries as The Gateless Gate–a barrier that is not a barrier except that–and because–it is (in) the mind.

If you want to resolve barriers between people, it is not enough to go through the door in the gate, waving a white flag. That will do nothing to remove the dividing line between people. The whole barrier must be removed. It is also not enough to get the parties to negotiate a truce because that also does not remove the barrier.

Most people will assume that getting rid of the barrier means doing so physically, as was done when the Berlin Wall was taken down and East and West Germany were re-united. But this response, while symbolically and functionally helpful, still doesn’t get rid of the ultimate cause that produces barriers in the first place. Barriers therefore remain—they just take another form. This is why wars cannot be won or lost. The barriers that are physically and politically dismantled “after” a war are just reflections of Mind. It’s good to take them down, but if the causes remain, then the physical barriers will eventually be rebuilt, often in another part of the world. So what are you going to do?

–from The Driftwood Shrine

Well, it’s pretty simple, actually.  If you want to know Zen, just walk through this “gate,” and all will be well.  You just have to “see” it clearly.  What is this “gate”?  What is it that you see?

"Goso said, "It's like a buffalo trying to pass through a lattice window. Its head, horns, body, and legs have all passed through. But its tail cannot pass through? Why cannot the tail pass?"
“Goso said, “It’s like a buffalo trying to pass through a lattice window. Its head, horns, body, and legs have all passed through. But its tail cannot pass through.  Why cannot the tail pass?” (Image Copyright © 2015 Onwards by John Gendo Wolff, Sensei)


Henry David Thoreau’s “Royal Gift”

Readers will surely want to know about the title of this book, The Driftwood Shrine.  It’s actually is a reference to a story chronicled by Franklin Sanborn, Henry David Thoreau’s biographer.  I’d been interested for a very long time in historical East-West connections and had taken every reasonable opportunity to acquaint my literature students with a few basic tenets of both Hinduism and Buddhism—ideas that I hoped would help them understand the unique and passionate interest that so many American poets have had in Eastern thought.  One year, while I was on sabbatical, I used my time to read to deepen my understanding of the influence of Eastern thought on American writers.  It was then that I came across an anecdote that not only captured the nature of my long-standing interest in East-West connections, but illustrated the rapt kind of enthusiasm with which the American Transcendentalists had sought out books on Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in the early decades of the 19th century.  I explains, as follows, in my book:

English: crayon portrait of Henry David Thorea...
English: crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau as a young man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the story, Henry David Thoreau received a “royal gift” of forty-four books on Eastern religions from his English friend Thomas Chomondeley. They were exceptionally rare books which Thoreau cherished for the rest of his life. Thoreau shared the news of their arrival as one might, he said, “share news of the birth of a child,” then proceeded to shelve these treasures in a bookcase that he had made out of driftwood from the Concord River, an act by which, as the biographer Franklin Sanborn put it, Thoreau had given “Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine.”1


One might think that Thoreau’s “driftwood shrine” was an unfitting container for the sophisticated wisdom of a tradition like Buddhism.  To me, however, that wisdom was all the more at home in its simple, worn, and worldly wooden case.  Zen is always about what is readily at hand—a broom, a coffee cup, a window box full of weeds.  “Grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles,” wrote the great master Eihei Dogen, “carry out buddha work.”  The naked immediacy, the humble acceptance of things as they are, the acknowledgement that all things and beings are a reflection of ultimate reality—all these are common to the nature of driftwood and Dharma alike.  They are qualities that can be discovered now in the poetry of Americans—many, many of whom have been influenced by the light of the Buddha-dharma.

English: Broom
English: Broom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




1Christy, Arthur. The Orient in American Transcendentalism: A Study of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. New York: Octagon Books, 1963. Print. 40.

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