Zen Buddhism

Page 4 of 6

Art was regarded as a kind of Zen, as a delving down into the Buddha that each of us unknowingly carries within him, as Benjamin carried Joseph's cup in his sack. Through Zen we annihilate Time and see the Universe not split up into myriad fragments, but in its primal unity. Unless, says the Zen sthetician, the artist's work is imbued with this vision of the subjective, non-phenomenal aspect of life, his productions will be mere toys.

I do not mean to suggest that Chinese artists found in Zen a short cut to the production of beauty. Zen aims at the annihilation of consciousness, whereas art is produced by an interaction of conscious and unconscious faculties. How far such an interaction can be promoted by the psychic discipline of Zen no layman can judge; moreover the whole question of the artist's psychology is controversial and obscure.

Perhaps it is not even very important that the artist himself should have a sound sthetic; but it is of the utmost importance to the artist that the public should have some notion of the conditions under which art can be produced—should have some key to the vagaries of a section of humanity which will in any case always be found troublesome and irritating.

Such a key Zen supplied, and it is in the language of Zen that, after the twelfth century, art is usually discussed in China and Japan.


One institution, about which till recently very little was known, seems to have been an important factor in the propagation of Zen art and ideas. About 1215 A.D. a Zen priest came from the far south-west of China to Hangchow, the Capital, and there refounded a ruined monastery, the Rokutsji, which stood on the shores of the famous Western Lake. His name was Mokkei. He seems to have been the first to practise the swift, ecstatic type of monochrome which is associated with Zen. In hurried swirls of ink he sought to record before they faded visions and exaltations produced whether by the frenzy of wine, the stupor of tea, or the vacancy of absorption.


Sometimes his design is tangled and chaotic; sometimes as in his famous "Persimmons,"[10] passion has congealed into a stupendous calm.

Of his fellow-workers the best known is Ras, a painter of birds and flowers. Rykai, once a fashionable painter, left the Court and with his pupil Rikaku worked in the manner of Mokkei.

Examples of Rykai's work before and after his conversion are still preserved in Japan.

Finally, about the middle of the fourteenth century, a Japanese priest came to China and, under circumstances which I shall describe in an appendix, confusingly became Mokkei II. It may be that it was he who sent back to his own country some of the numerous pictures signed Mokkei which are now in Japan. Which of them are by Mokkei and which by Mokuan is a problem which remains to be solved.

This Zen art did not flourish long in China, nor in all probability do many specimens of it survive there. But in Japan it was a principal source of inspiration to the great painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Sessh himself is the direct descendant of Mokkei; as in a decadent way are Kan masters such as Tsunenobu.

Zen paintings are of two kinds. (1) Representations of animals, birds and flowers, in which the artist attempted to identify himself with the object depicted, to externise its inner Buddha. These were achieved not by study from the life, as the early Sung nature-pieces have been, but by intense and concentrated visualisation of the subject to be painted. This mental picture was rapidly transferred to paper before the spell of concentration (samdhi) was broken. (2) Illustrations of episodes in the lives of the great Zen teachers. This branch of Zen art was essentially dramatic. It sought to express the characters of the persons involved, subtly to reveal the grandeur of soul that lay hidden behind apparent uncouthness or stupidity. Typical of this kind of painting are the pictures of "Tanka burning the Image."

One night Tanka, a Zen priest, stayed as a guest at an ordinary Buddhist monastery. There was no firewood in his cell.[24] As the night was cold he went into the chapel, seized a wooden statue of Shkyamuni and, chopping it up, made himself a comfortable fire. To him the idol of Buddha was a mere block of wood; his indignant hosts took a different view. The controversy is the same as that which occupies the central place in the N play Sotoba Komachi.

There is another aspect of Zen which had an equally important effect on art. The Buddha-nature is immanent not in Man only, but in everything that exists, animate or inanimate. Stone, river and tree are alike parts of the great hidden Unity. Thus Man, through his Buddha-nature or universalised consciousness, possesses an intimate means of contact with Nature. The songs of birds, the noise of waterfalls, the rolling of thunder, the whispering of wind in the pine-trees—all these are utterances of the Absolute.

Hence the connection of Zen with the passionate love of Nature which is so evident in Far Eastern poetry and art.

Personally I believe that this passion for Nature worked more favourably on literature than on painting. The typical Zen picture, dashed off in a moment of exaltation—perhaps a moonlit river expressed in three blurs and a flourish—belongs rather to the art of calligraphy than to that of painting.

In his more elaborate depictions of nature the Zen artist is led by his love of nature into that common pitfall of lovers—sentimentality. The forms of Nature tend with him to function not as forms but as symbols.

Something resembling the mystic belief which Zen embraces is found in many countries and under many names. But Zen differs from other religions of the same kind in that it admits only one means by which the perception of Truth can be attained. Prayer, fasting, asceticism—all are dismissed as useless, giving place to one single resource, the method of self-hypnosis which I have here described.

I have, indeed, omitted any mention of an important adjunct of Zen, namely tea-drinking, which was as constant a feature in the life of Zen monasteries as it is here in the rgime of charwomen and girl-clerks. I have not space to describe the various tea-ceremonies. The tendency of monasteries was to create in them as in every part of daily life a more and more[25] elaborate ritual, calculated to give some pattern to days otherwise devoid of any incident. We possess minute descriptions of every ceremony—the initiation of novices, the celebration of birth and death anniversaries of the Patriarchs, the procedure in cases of sickness, madness, disobedience, disappearance or death of monks; the selection and investiture of abbots; the lectures, liturgies and sessions which constituted the curriculum of Zen instruction.

In China decay set in after the fifteenth century. The Zen monasteries became almost indistinguishable from those of popular, idolatrous Buddhism. In Japan, on the other hand, Zen has remained absolutely distinct and is now the favourite creed of the educated classes. It has not hitherto conducted any propaganda in Europe, whereas the Amida Sect has sent out both missionaries and pamphlets. But I believe that Zen would find many converts in England. Something rather near it we already possess. Quakerism, like Zen, is a non-dogmatic religion, laying stress on the doctrine of Immanence. But whereas the Quakers seek communion with the Divine Spark in corporate meditation and deliberately exploit the mysterious potencies of crowd-psychology—the Zen adept probes in solitude (or at least without reference to his neighbour) for the Buddha within him.

Free Learning Resources