September 15, 2012–December 31, 2012
Zen art is known for its elegant simplicity, embodied in the many paintings and calligraphies in this exhibit that consist of black ink on white paper or silk. With a few brushstrokes, Zen monks create expressions of enlightenment, from a simple circle to an image of Zen’s Indian founder Bodhidharma. These works from the Kagetsu An Collection show a wide range of Zen art from Japan’s Edo period (1600–1868) to the twentieth century. Among these pieces are painting and calligraphy by such prominent Zen figures as Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768), Sengai Gibon (1750–1837), and Nakahara Nantenbo (1839–1925), who were both great artists and great Zen masters.
Zen is one of many schools of Buddhism, a religion based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha. The Buddha lived and taught in India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. Buddhists recognize him as an awakened or enlightened teacher who ultimately attained nirvana and shared his insights. Buddhism spread from India to China via the Silk Road by the second century CE. According to Zen legend, the Indian prince Bodhidharma introduced Zen to China between 420 and 589. “Zen” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character “Chan,” which is the Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit word dhyana that refers to a mind absorbed in meditation. Seated meditation, or zazan, is the core practice of Zen.
Japanese Buddhists embraced Zen in the twelfth century, and it became one of the dominant forms of Buddhism there. In Japan, Zen is split into three lineages of Soto, Rinzai, and Obaku. The Rinzai and Obaku forms of Zen retained close ties to China, and monks of these lineages mastered the classical Chinese arts of painting and calligraphy in addition to philosophy and literature. Most of the pieces in this exhibit come from Rinzai and Obaku monks. Though their paintings and calligraphy might look effortless or unstudied, they are the result of years of training. As with most endeavors, it takes a lot of effort to appear effortless!
Zen art expresses the enlightened mind that, according to Zen doctrine, exists within everyone. The only difference between buddhas and other people is that buddhas have awakened to their innate enlightenment, and other people have not. Jiun Onko’s (1718–1804) line of calligraphy, “Great Master Ma’s ‘this very mind is the buddha’” states this idea of innate awakening. Zen masters have the job of leading their students to realize they are already buddhas, but this is not something that people realize by hearing an explanation. Instead, Zen masters use various non-verbal techniques and wield language creatively (sometimes confusingly) to trigger students’ awakening. Nakahara Nantenbo took the name Nantenbo, meaning “nandina tree staff,” from the staff he used to strike students to prompt their awakening.
Teachers are important in Zen not only for helping guide students to awakening, but also for verifying students’ awakening. When students reach enlightenment, they receive a certificate that places them within a spiritual lineage that extends to the famous Chinese Zen patriarchs, to Bodhidharma, all the way back to the Buddha. The enlightenment these students reach is the same as the Buddha’s enlightenment. It is therefore not surprising to see several examples of Zen painting and calligraphy that depict the Zen masters of the past or quote their sayings.
The tea ceremony is another artistic form associated with Zen Buddhism. This exhibit includes objects used in the tea ceremony, from bowls to iron kettles to braziers. The ritualization of every step of the tea ceremony (chanoyu in Japanese) mirrors the highly ritualized nature of Zen monastic life. Each step requires total concentration and mindfulness, making it a meditative experience.
Meditation is the cornerstone of Zen monastic practice. In fact, the word “Zen” comes from the Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyana. Painting and calligraphy can be forms of meditation, and can serve as objects of meditation after they are done. A phrase such as “ordinary mind is the Way,” a lotus pond, or the peak of Mt. Fuji could be the catalyst that leads the viewer to realize his or her innate enlightenment. The search for enlightenment need not extend beyond one’s own mind.