Tenuous beauty: Zen Buddhist poems on leaves

Like all good conservators, I want to be responsive to requests from curators. So when a particular one at UCLA Library Special Collections, who always shows me the most amazing objects, asked me for advice on mounting a few items I naturally agreed.

And when he presented them to me, I was truly in awe. Nyogen Senzaki’s Zen Buddhist poems, calligraphed in sumi ink on pressed botanical leaves, each accompanied by a red pigment inkan, were evidence of true mastery and skill. As I admired these stunning works, the curator told me of their creator’s great legacy as one of the first Zen Masters to come to the United States to teach Zen Buddhism to those who had never encountered it.

When the United States government issued an order to send anyone of Japanese heritage to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Senzaki was moved from California to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming. While there, he taught English to young mothers, using the correspondence of his friend Ruth Strout McCandless.

A blog post on UCLA’s website delves further into his incredible life:

Senzaki’s poetry leaves were now to be featured in a local television story on the 75th anniversary of the internment camps. The curator wished to have them beautifully mounted in a manner that would facilitate handling during filming, and after careful inspection I offered to take them back to the lab to work on them. As I was leaving, he cautioned that he thought there might be some consolidation issues.

At first glance they seemed to be fairly minor, so I was not terribly worried. But as soon as I placed the leaves under a microscope and touched the ink with my porcupine quill, I realized that the work was going to be a lot more complex than I had originally thought. Please enjoy this video of the testing under magnification – although you might want to be seated and breathing deeply!

Those precious leaves were truly in danger of losing their media with even the most delicate sort of handling or manipulation. My supervisor immediately contacted the curator, who agreed to use existing photographs of the leaves for the television program and therefore avoid any further damage.

That solved the immediate threat; however, the leaves are still urgently in need of protection. Prior to beginning my research, I created the most obvious and protective housing that I could. The drawer in which the leaves are stored has a ‘Do Not Touch’ sign, and the handles are protected with dust guards. The leaves are resting on mat board and have an outer box resting above them, with a large and explicit warning against any sort of handling.


The first stage of my research, internet searching, led me to articles on consolidating palm leaf manuscripts. While some of the techniques are translatable to the Senzaki leaves, there are two areas of concern. First, while palm leaves are treated before being written on, the Senzaki leaves appear to have been pressed without any sort of preparation. Second, palm leaf manuscript ink is often used with a sharp stylus, which makes an indent in the leaf, trapping some ink in the incision and at least marking where the ink was originally placed. The ink on the Senzaki leaves was brushed on, and once the ink lifted there was no longer any evidence of where it lay before.

Discussions with other conservators have yielded some very useful advice, yet I have not been able to find anyone who has treated a similar object… and this is where I hope the readers of the Book & Paper Gathering can help. I would be very grateful if you could take the time to read over the following treatment plan, muse over it with colleagues, and then either add your comments below or email me your thoughts.

I am currently making some models for testing purposes. I have dried pressed leaves from persimmon and a few other types of trees, on which I will brush sumi ink and attempt to age and damage them to the same level as the Senzaki leaves. Then I would like to try humidifying the test leaves. Any movement of the substrate could potentially cause further loss, although my research has shown that the humidification of palm leaf manuscripts has been deemed a safe procedure, with no planar distortion reported.

When the leaves are in the humidification chamber, I would like to use a color shaper to tap the humidified ink down onto the substrate. This very gentle manipulation will, I hope, encourage a weak bond with the substrate.

Once the leaves have dried, I want to test both 1% isinglass and funori as consolidants. The application method will use the smallest brush possible, applying individual dots to the ink in the hope that capillary action will pull it through and firmly consolidate it with the leaf.

That is our current plan, and I hope to hear from you with ideas and tips that will help us save these wonderful, fragile objects.

Images and video credit: Christina Romanowski-Bean (courtesy of UCLA Library)

Christina Romanowski-Bean graduated from Camberwell College of Arts in 2016 with an MA in Conservation: Works of Art on Paper. She is currently the Kress Assistant Conservator at UCLA Library in her home state of California. She loves archive and library collections and once made the mistake of wishing for interesting projects.

Selected bibliography:

Dean, John F. (1997) Conservation and Stabilization of Palm Leaf and Parabaik Manuscripts, Manual Guide No. 8A, Cornell Department of Preservation and Conservation

Van Dyke, Yana (2009) Sacred Leaves: The Conservation and Exhibition of Early Buddhist Manuscripts on Palm Leaves

2 thoughts on “Tenuous beauty: Zen Buddhist poems on leaves

  1. I think the most important thing here is to replicate the leaf condition and its testing. You could add a spot of some visible medium such as white gouache or plaster to visualise what is happening to the ink, even though they are not the same material – it will give you an idea of the tensions etc. The white pigment will give you a good visual idea of what is going on. My gut reaction is that being just a dried leaf, it might react quite strongly to humidification and have quite a effect on the ink. Don’t go ahead until you are happy you have a good idea of what is going to happen and how to address it. Other possibilities can be explored for the consolidation. Nebulised adhesive might work, or just wicking your adhesive under the ink using capillarity are some options, rather than pushing down, which, on this scale, might break up the medium. You also need to think about the finish of the adhesive, as some will impart a gloss, others stay matte.


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