WHEN SARA LARKIN was a little girl (born in quincy, Mass, in 1946) she did not know doodley beans about art or the nature of the soul. Now she knows beans. "I did not grow up in an atmosphere of high culture or anything like that," she said, giving a twitch to her straw-colored silk shirt, "but the most ordinary middle-class family. They did have tremendous faith in education, though, so there was no question about my going to schools."

One kindergaten led to another, as you might say, and when she was 12 she made a long tour of European museums, then enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and then came degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

Then to Japan for a trip to polish her up a bit, because as anymore knows the Japanese are so good esthetically.

Behold, the new ball game.

"I met Tetsuzo Tanikawa, the philosopher and connoisseur, and Kiyomi Kawaguchi, the writer, and the Nobel Jaureate Kawabata and Arishma, who introduced the Impressionists to Japan, and my education became something else."

I had dropped by Larkin's pad at Columbia Plaza to see what was up in contemporary Chinese painting. Larkin recently gave some lectures at the Smithsonian, and I knew she was agent for some of the painters who sell their work in Hong Kong, and I wondered if they all painted the jolly Chinese ladies of today, breaking rocks and climbing high-tension wires (for women have equal opportunities there)

As it turned out, the planters in question are Hong Kong painters, and not necessarily a clue to the art of the People's Republic.

How, I asked, do you refine judgement and how do you teach a girl to get past Lord & Taylor, so to speak, in her understanding of art and the nature of diving longing?

Well, What the masters did with Sara was start at Go.

"They would set two ginger jars in front of me and leave me alone to look. Later they would ask me which I preferred. Sometime it was obvious which was beautiful and which as not. But other times it was not so obvious.

"They never criticized or told me I was wrong."

Because she was never wrong, merely because she preferred the lesser to the greater. It was not a question of right or wrong, but of being prepared to receive even more. ptr ad 3

"Once they sent me to spend some time at a famous Zen garden, thinking I might learn something from it and I did."

Experiencing the garden - even without "knowing" anything about it or why it was glorious - helped her choose the profounder ginger jar later on.

It's easy to smile, of course, and with Sara Larkin it's quite easy to laugh, since she is a merry creature and in any case learning is a funny process, easily parodied.

But that's how she learned, jar against jar, or jar with jar, until at last the angel in the first one begins to be heard. You have to pay attention, you have to give a damn, you have to want it, if you are ever to be able to detect a richer overtone and a more persistant echo in the one than in the other.

That's why they sent her to the garden.

If she couldn't see it in the porcelains, maybe an excursion to another art (in which the austerity and balance was even more obvious) might help her see it the next time she saw those porcelains.

And once she had seen it a little, it was easier to see it more. This at least was the way the Japanese tried to teach her. Step by step, and looking in as much as looking out.

Later her life took her to Thailand, and marriage with a banker who died. He had some warning. They got an apartment in Hong Kong and in one room he had poker buddies pretty much round the clock and in another she held court to painters and intellectuals and the two groups merged and crossed over and regrouped, and that (she now sees) was a very beautiful three years in her life.

She has an outlet for her painters at Daly and Red, the Georgetown interior designers.

In her apartment she has a few pictures, may be three in a room. Wucius Wong sounds absurd in English, like Lucius Long gone bad, but his work moves westerners.

He makes a sketch, then enlarges it on rice paper, inks in the critical out-lines. Then repeated washes of Chinese ink and watercolors. The works are abstract and look like a cross between a Sung or Tang landscape and certain dreams. Not the ones about anxiety or sex, which can be so readily mastered by the walking mind, but the ones that cannot, and which seem to be about a yearning and a hint of fulfilment all at once.

Less grandly, if you want to reduce art to nothing, they vaguely suggest those valleys and heights in Nepal. At least the ones in the series"Thinking of Distant Lands" suggest that. Other modes and other painters are different, but the ones Larkin chooses, whether lyrical or fierce, are interior landscapes and even when they are sensuous they are also past feeling and into whatever it is that is past that:

The heart, possibly, when "heart" does not mean chocolate candy boxes or delicious itches. Or the soul, when "soul" does not mean squinting through a keyhole at the heathen, but "good morning" to the god.

Sara thinks art is character. "If an artist doesn't have it himself, how could he express it? Where else could it come from - the thing that makes you see it suddenly - except from inside himself? And if he lacks the character, if he is not himself profound, how can he make profound art?"

"Well," I said. "He could be a gilt-edged jerk, couldn't he? And still be the accidential channel of angels? Do you really believe - it's so contrary to everything we think in the West - an artist is as good as his work?"

"Yes," she said.