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Zen the Religion
I have no interest in or knowledge of the Buddha-nature. I am an art fan.
I knew very little of Zen before starting this work, just a vague notion of
it not thinking much about deities, and being admired or revered by mostly
stupid hippies. After reading a bunch of books, I have been able to properly
develop the same kind of deep contempt I feel for other religions that I
already knew well, particularly for its 'Ahhhh, do you see? Do you?' annoying
koans and its official certificates of enlightenment. I don't think this is a
problem, for the most part: I feel the same way about Christianity, and it
doesn't stop me loving Bernini's sculture 'Ecstacy of St Teresa' or The
Caravans' recording of 'Walk Around Heaven All Day'.
I wrote the above some time ago, and while I wouldn't recant, I think I
should make this addition. The account of Zen that Zen offers is such that
someone like me couldn't hope to understand it. Not just because I was
brought up in a different tradition - Western, christian - but because I am
very much a rationalist, someone with a particularly logical mind, probably
fatally short of the kind of intuitive insight that Zen seems to require. I
love much Zen art, but you may reasonably conclude that I am hopelessly
unable to grasp Zen itself, and therefore you may sensibly choose to ignore
my cynical, dismissive attitude to it.
Chan Buddhism appeared in China, thanks to the Indian monk known as
Dharma (Daruma in Japan), something like 600 years before its transmission
to Japan by Eisai in about 1191 A.D., where it became known as Zen. It
differed greatly from the Buddhism that had dominated Japan for the last
several centuries in its focus on meditation, backed with discipline and hard
work, to unlock the truths of the universe, to achieve enlightenment. There
were two branches in the early days: the rinzai branch believed in sudden
flashes of enlightenment, and this was popular within military and artistic
circles, while the soto branch preached slow growth in understanding, and
was strong in rural areas. These came from Southern and Northern China
respectively, but this doesn't appear to have fed into the Chinese artistic
preferences of its adherents.
The aesthetics of Zen are a rich area, treated at length elsewhere, so
here I will just offer a list of the key qualities you expect to see in
Zen art: asymmetry; simplicity; astringency; naturalness; subtle depth;
freedom of thought; tranquility. In addition, a overtones
of sadness, poverty and age are preferred.
This doesn't address why their art is different, so some explanation is
needed of what Zen is. It's a branch of Buddhism that does not interest
itself in worshipping the Buddha at all, but instead in grasping the
Buddha-nature in and underlying and uniting the phenomenal world. Zen art
is about capturing the true nature of things, the inner soul - thus there is
no real attempt at any kind of illusionism or realism. Also relevant here may
be the abstraction of props and sets and physical movements in noh theatre.
realism in painting|
a tiger by Mokurai
Zen and Nature
Zen seems to be at the heart of the Japanese relationship with nature.
I was very struck by Suzuki's shock at mountain-climbing being expressed
in terms such as "conquering" the mountain - he finds this an inconceivably
alien way of relating to nature, as an enemy to be defeated. This
difference may also explain why, as far as I know, the landscape as an
artistic genre started earlier in the Zen countries than anywhere else in
the world, and always remained a major genre. It may also explain why there
are so many more depictions of plants, birds, animals and so on.
In 'The East and the West: A Study of their psychic and cultural characteristics',
Sidney Lewis Gulick says this: "To Occidentals, the physical world was
an objective reality--to be analyzed, used, mastered. To Orientals, on the contrary,
it was a realm of beauty to be admired, but also of mystery and illusion to be
pictured by poets, explained by mythmakers, and mollified by priestly incantations.
Suzuki takes what I think is a step further, and suggests that Oriental art depicts
spirit, while Western art depicts form.
One other note to make here is about the fact that while there is
interest in depicting things suggesting eternity - mountains, gnarled and
ancient trees - there is an even greater interest in representing change:
scrolls that show seasonal changes, haiku on short-lived plants or creatures,
haiku indeed capturing an instant, even the love of the cherry blossoms for
several days each spring. The continuing flow and change of the real world is
of central importance to the philosophy of Zen, even its epistemology, if we
can use such terms of a religion opposed to logic and knowledge, and central to the
Zen and other ideas
Zen in Japan is not wholly separable from other strands of thought -
Buddhism came from India, was altered in various ways by the Chinese, and
further by the Japanese, and Zen is one of the results of this. Also, when
it came from China, right at the start of the Kamakura period, it was
accompanied by scholars and books centred around Taoism and Confucianism
too - and all this has mixed in with Japan's native Shinto religion. It's
beyond me to disentangle all this (even Suzuki often barely tries, flowing
into Tao particularly as he pleases), but suffice to say that while we can
say a lot of things specifically about Zen, there is much overlap, and many
of its monks and priests had much more in their ideas than Zen alone.
There is much else to say about zen, in its relationship to painting, the
tea ceremony, garden design, ceramics and so on, but since most artforms
have or will have their own Zen-related section, those should be explored there.
It is worth, I think, making one comic-book digression here. I give some reasons
in the comic section as to why I believe the history of Zen art has been a
crucial factor in making comics so vastly successful in Japan; this of course
is not to claim that comics are Zen art, and most have nothing at all to
tell us about Zen. Here I want to highlight and point you to one extraordinary
story, by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima in a magnificent series called Lone Wolf
And Cub, which I think expresses some fascinating aspects of Zen in extremely powerful
form, and is worth reading about, or indeed actually reading, before proceeding
to the other chapter in this section.
Zen painting (large section)|
tea ceremony section
tea gardens section
tea ceremony ceramics section
Zen dry gardens section
Zen calligraphy section
Zen and comics
a Lone Wolf & Cub story