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中文翻譯 Chinese Translation

 

Hung-Chih Peng's irresistible teachers

            Hung-Chih Peng has found his strategy to convey important truths in his art.  He employs as his star-performers the most irresistible of teachers, one whose lessons make even the stubbornest student drink deeply at the well of wisdom.  Then let those teachers convey in simple, apprehensible ways the most basic yet complex truths about human nature and desires, the infinite reality of existence, and the ultimate spiritual aims of our lives in this realm.  These are the same truths that the great scholars, thinkers and visionaries have tried for millennia to impart to us, we frail, mortal and deluded beings, to help alleviate our unnecessary suffering.  When such study seems to be driven by our desire for entertainment, play and diversions from our labors, we just might stop resisting and learn something.

            Hung-Chih Peng’s teachers are dogs, our canine companions, simple and complex beings themselves.  One nearly universal relationship that exists among cultures is the bond between humans and dogs.  This bond goes back to the earliest periods of human history, the Upper Paleolithic Age 14,000 to 17,000 years ago.  Dogs are as diverse as humans, ranging from miniature hairless, rodent-like creatures to huge, furry beasts that could pass for bears.   They have personas and personalities that are as individual as their human companion’s but unlike most humans they cannot express their desires and wisdom in language.  Few who spend time with dogs find them uncommunicative, since we have evolved not just alongside them, but also with them.  Humans and dogs are not separate species, and while there is a distinction at the level of the genome, that distinction is a useless one.

            As Donna Haraway proved in her visionary text, The Companion Species Manifesto, the standard biological model that sees dogs and humans as separate species is just one taxonomic convention.  Another more nuanced understanding is possible when you consider the dogs/human relation as an example of co-evolution.  The resulting formation she describes as a form of “NatureCulture,” her useful neologism that joins what had been seen as an irreconcilable divide.  Her manifesto opens with the startling image of her tasting her dog’s saliva in an effusive play moment and imaging their DNA melding and realizing in the rest of the slim volume that in many ways it already has.  For when proto-dogs began hanging around nomadic camps of early humans and the dogs found the humans would let them eat the leftovers in exchange for cleaning up the leftover food scraps and protecting the camp, the evolution of both camps changed forever.1

            Human impact on canine evolution is easy to see in the proliferation of the numerous diverse and distinct breeds brought into existence according to often-arbitrary human aesthetics, and specific aspects of breed histories.  This is made amusingly clear when you hear the commentators at the telecast of The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show give the most unbelievable explanations of the most outr? poodle hairdos as having had some basis in their previous working-dog lives. 

            But the larger impact is on dog behavior, which is so familiar to us as to not even seem to need an explanation or be in any way an unnatural creation.  Those qualities and behaviors that we are most seduced by in dogs’ ways of relating to us, such as those longing looks they give us, the enthusiastic greetings, and licks, the rubbing, their insistent need to be stroked, (and in so being stroked settle our souls) are, in the rest of the animal kingdom only seen in very young animals trying to get their parents attention, and be fed and cared for.  These are the traits that in the distant past made one dog more adorable to humans than some others and started a process of (un)natural selection, as real as any other evolutionary advantage.  Hence the puppy-like adult dog was more likely to be fed, taken into the home and made safe, and bred for the future to produce more such “perfect companions.”  Were it possible to find a dog who over the last twenty thousand years had no interaction with humankind it would likely be horrified to see the infantilized behavior of their brethren.  Still this was a mutual decision and this adaptation is among the most successful in evolutionary history.

            On the other side of this evolutionary pas-des-deux, in the modern era when the drive for self-satisfaction of individual desires has become paramount in much of the world, rather than the earlier clannish or feudal systems of communal betterment, the canine-human bond has been the model for the meeting of human needs for love and companionship.  As Marjorie Garber made clear in her book Dog Love, it is a mistake to understand the love of dogs as a substitute for some lost or denied human-human bond.2  The love of dogs is complete and needs no justification from more socially acceptable relations.  In fact even the most complex human ethical questions such as the morality of assisted suicide for the terminally ill, and the social responsibility of the larger society to remove young people from unfit parents are culturally modeled on society’s ways of taking care of our canine companions.  It is likely that most young people who get involved in animal liberation movements or become vegetarians for moral reasons have their hearts first touched by canine eyes.

            While walking my dog through Central Square, near my home in Cambridge recently, I noticed a homeless woman keeping up a lively chatter with herself.  I wasn’t paying attention to her words when she clearly wanted to get my attention, gesturing toward my dog.  “They are a path to God, you know.”  I looked puzzled, and she reiterated her revelation as if speaking to a slow child: “Dogs are a path to God.”  What could I say but “thanks for the reminder”?

           Like a modern Aesop, Hung-Chih Peng, does not stop at simple social observation of dogs in society.  Rather he invites us to consider our human behaviors and spiritual aspirations throughout his works in various mediums.  In One Black/One White (2001) dogs act out the human foible of envy to their own detriment.  In the Canine Monk series (2007) they write beautiful Zen Buddhist and Taoist meditations and protective charms with their tongues.  As they perform the role of human surrogates in these works they remain dogs, relating to each other, the world and spiritual realities as dogs do, so that we may learn from them in strictly canine terms.

            Not surprisingly as early man created his first gods and religions, dogs played a role in the conceptualizations of a spiritual world.  As many of the concepts that might positively or negatively affect spiritual progress are conspicuously present in dogs, such as purity, presentness, and uncontrolled desire, they might serve as paradigms—both good and bad—for human behavior.

            Although dogs in Islam are considered unclean, some versions of the life of the Prophet Mohammed reveal he had a companion Saluki.3  The Egyptians revered their dogs—although less dearly than their cats—and their canine companions were often mummified to accompany them in the afterlife.  Homer wrote that upon returning to Ithaca in disguise, Odysseus is recognized first by his now elderly dog, Argus, who serves as an icon of loyalty over time.4
Early Christian iconography shows St. Christopher with the head of a dog, but other than that the Bible and Christianity proper are short on dogs.5  There are however many Christian folk tales that assert the primacy of the canine-human relationship.  In one the healthy dog’s wet nose is due to them having used their snouts to plug leaks on Noah’s ark.6  In another morality tale that exists in many variations Heaven is unimaginable if it means severing the interspecies bond.  In a mass-culture iteration on Rod Serling’s hyper-literate otherworldly television program the Twilight Zone, a man accidentally drowns with his dog while fishing.  He approaches heaven’s gates and is told that dogs are not allowed, so he forsakes this heaven for a small pond and returns to fishing.  In the final twist, the “heaven” he gave up was in fact the door to hell, which anyone willing to abandon his loyal dog certainly deserves.  The fishing hole where man and his dog and now spend eternity is all the heaven one needs.

            Since 1966 the greatest dog trainers in the west are the Monks of New Skete, who live closely with their German Shepherds as a spiritual discipline.7  They now have their own popular TV series, which is less surprising considering their very commanding presence of the screen.  It is rarely the dog that misbehaves—they only act out their nature that must include testing the limits of their and our authority.  The human-dog coevolution has produced animals that really want to please their humans, so the task of the Monks is to teach themselves and their thousands of students how to focus their communication as to be understood without the gift of language on which we are overly reliant.  Through this arduous discipline the monks are better able to train their minds to hear and convey the word of God.

            Yet it is in Buddhist Dharma study that Hung-Chih Peng’s has found the most inspiration for his recent work.  In a famous Zen Koan given to initiates trying to understand the complex irrationality of Zen thought, the master Joshu is approached by a student who asks, “Do dogs have Buddha nature?”  He shouts “Mu” which translates as “No thing”.  This is meditated on by those seeking to understand emptiness.  In Mumon’s commentary on this Koan to say either “yes” or  “no” would result in a loss of one’s own Buddha nature.8

            In Hung-Chih Peng’s video, One Black/One White, two dogs barely manage to eat their own bowls of food, as they are too busy coveting each other’s dish.  As black and white dogs from the same litter their visible difference, while marked, is essentially inconsequential.  Dogs are free of envy and do not compare their lot to others, except when what they want is visible, or close at hand.  In the transparent shamelessness of their quest for more food they may still have a leg up on humans, who will act out in seemingly incomprehensible ways when feeling short-changed.
In a small self-help book, called Are You as Happy as Your Dog sufferers were advised to follow their dogs examples, and live in the moment, not compare, not let the past haunt them and to love unconditionally.9  However there are some human attributes for self-reflection and learning to NOT act on instinct that Hung-Chih Peng also uses for their lesson giving capabilities.  His dog-world is frequently brutal, with dog’s natural protectiveness when encountering unknown dogs on their turf, perceiving them as inherently a danger.

            In fact, countless attempts have been made by humans to understand the way the dog sees the world.  In Hung-Chih Peng’s sculptural video installation Face to Face, humans must meld their bodies to canine-formed sculptures to share videos of dogs’ point-of-view of the world. In one, the limit of his visible world is the dog food in an offered bowl.  Our protagonist-dog scoffs down his food as fast as possible since there are two other dogs near, and sharing food is not an option.  In another he runs with a pack, and in another he is attacked by a pack.  His view is chaotic, jerking around and low to the ground, (an advantage for dogs as they can run quick, better guard themselves and learn much information from the smells that are found on the ground.)

            In the animal kingdom canine aesthetics are the ones we know the most about since our contact with them is so intimate.  Much is known beyond the familiar factoid of dogs’ limited experience of color as we know it.  Dog-eyes are geared to sense and follow motion first, as is true of most animals descended from hunters.  Still objects will only attract attention if they smell good, and dogs have vastly extended senses of smell.  Some theoreticians have compared dog’s love of what seems to us as rancid stink to a teenagers love of heavy metal or and older persons love of grand opera, the most over the top aesthetic experience imaginable.  One way to cure a dog that likes to roll in the stink of rotten carcasses is to find a tawdry perfume that they like better and let them smell like a hooker instead of carrion.  In Hung-Chih Peng’s videos that were filmed with a canine-head-mounted camera he captures the sense of being inside the dog’s head.  That effect is made more acute by the position we must take to see them.  Crouched or otherwise inside our dog host, we have willfully surrendered our haughty human two-legged stance, and have a chance to approach the canine mind at their level.

            In the works from his ongoing Canine Monk series, Hung-Chih Peng employs a simple, yet effective strategy of writing texts on white walls in a paste of dog food, and showing the footage of his dogs licking it off backwards.  This creates the appearance that the dogs are writing the texts with their tongue.  He also changes the speed of the playback to create rhythmic and formal effects.  He does little to disguise his obvious manipulations—they lick the hardest where the writing is densest—as the resonance of the works is not based on our believing the dogs are in fact authors or sources of these wise texts.  Their passionate gourmandizing reveals that they have not freed themselves from the endless cycle of desire that prevents enlightenment in humans.  Like fables, these fictions mirror our all too human attempts to consume spirituality.

            One of the traits tied to teachabilty in Dharma study is maintaining “beginner’s mind” and not trying to outsmart the lessons or the teacher.  Perhaps dogs evolved life-long puppy-hood, makes them uniquely open to being spiritual avatars.  If we could all preserve the feeling of wonderment we had when young our anxieties and pain would be demonstrably lessened.

            The Qingjing Jing is the classic foundational meditation and devotional chant of Taoism, referred to as the Scripture of Purity and Transformation.  It is intended to focus the mind on the balances of nature while serving as an aid to overcoming desire.  It was believed to have been written by the priest, credited with founding Taoism, Lao-Tzu in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and was formulated as a liturgy in the Song Dynasty (960-1260 AD).10

            The Heart Sutra is the simplest and most common Sutra for Buddhist Dharma study, part of what is known as the Perfection of Wisdom literature of Mahayana Buddhism.  As it is much more compact then many Sutras, it is often chanted.  It is used to attempt to comprehend the fundamental emptiness of existence.  The Sutra is somewhat unusual in that the Buddha did not speak it.  In the video the text appears in Sanskrit, the language in which the Heart Sutra was originally written, rather than in the frequently used Chinese translation.

            Translation and interpretation are issues in number of these pieces such as Excerpts From The Holy Bible in Arabic Translations and 10 Commandments and Islamic Exegesis.  Even in the least dogma driven of spiritual practices debates arise over texts and an interpretation.  Hence the slightly absurd look of the animals writing with their tongues, for if our dogs are truly advanced spiritual models, they would know better than to use language to convey sacred truths to each other, as that can only lead to discord.

            Hung-Chih Peng’s recent work, Excerpts from the Taoist Protective Talismans, is a multi-frame simultaneous image of the artist’s dog writing protective talismans.  These are a form of magic-one is a Spell of Prevention for Dog Barks and Bites and another expels the mischievous spirits of deceased Dog and Cats.  The artist has left them untranslated so that we might better enjoy the rhythm of the simultaneous motion of his dog’s head swaying as she “writes” and eats.  The translation here would be superfluous, and the magic works on us visually.  Hung-Chih Peng’s works also offer little commentary on how we should understand his Canine Monks; he just asks that we contemplate them, a spiritual practice in itself.

            Linking the above themes together we find ourselves at a surprising and yet somehow familiar truth.  Haraway shows that the millennia have produced human-dog as a nature culture entity, that has evolved together and is best thought about together.  Many spiritual thinkers teach that we must resist dualistic thinking and man is already always one with the divine, and it is only the flaws in our understanding based on our false attachment to the world of appearances that stand in the way of our knowing that unity.  Put those ideas together and the triadic-relation Man-Dog-God is one entity too.  Admittedly in many of the spiritual traditions cited by Hung-Chih Peng’s Canine Monks that elevated role for a non-human would be unacceptable.  Yet watching his teachers, and thinking of the lessons I have learned from the dogs of my life, Donovan, Godot and Hanna, I say to him, as I said to that homeless woman who told me that dogs were a path to God, “Thanks for the reminder.”

Bill Arning – Cambridge MA-2007

 

1. Donna Jeanne Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. (Chicago:   Prickly Paradigm, 2003).

2. Marjorie Garber, Dog Love (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)

3. Stanley Coren, The Intelligence of Dogs (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 56-57

4. Katherine M. Rogers. First Friend: A History of Dogs and Humans. (New York: St. Martins Press, 2005), 31.

5. The Monks of New Skete, How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, (London, Little Brown and Co. 2002), 6.

6. Gerald and Loretta Hausman, The Mythology of Dogs: Canine Legend and Lore through the Ages, (New York: St Martins Press, 1997) 8-9.

7. Ibid. How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, 10-12

8. Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki eds. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Texts, (Boston; Rutland, VT; Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1998), 115-116.

9. Alan Cohen, Are You as Happy as Your Dog? (New York: Alan Cohen Publication, 1996)

10. Livia Kohn, The Taoist Experience: An Anthology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993), 12.

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