Posted inArt and Poems, Koans, Other Teachings

Zen and the Art of… Art

August 3, 2015

Zen art suggests a new way of seeing, a new way of being, that cuts to the core of what it means to be fully human and fully alive. — John Daido Loori


Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506) -this is an example of a Zen landscape done during the Muromachi period. Sesshu trained as a professional painter in China and returned to Japan as a professional painter.

Ever since Robert Persig’s 1974 iconic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became part of the consciousness of an expanding mindset of American and Western culture, the phrase “Zen and the Art of….” has been used for everything from vampires, disc golf, and how to pick up women. A quick search on Amazon will show page after page of titles starting with the phrase. But what about true Zen art?

The late John Daido Loori, Zen teacher, author, and artist, said that Zen art has one purpose, “to point to the nature of reality”.  According to Loori, “Zen art suggests a new way of seeing, a new way of being, that cuts to the core of what it means to be fully human and fully alive.”

This series of articles seeks to explore what Zen painting actually is. Why did Zen masters over the centuries take up the brush in their practice? What purpose did it serve in their personal practice? Could painting have been used as a teaching aid, or as a spur to koan study? Did they simply want to decorate their temples, or make extra cash? What were the differences between professional artisans and untrained monk painters? Has the style of Zen painting changed over time and evolved? And most importantly, how does the art of Zen relate to our practice as meditators?

Zenga and a Brief History

The focus of this series is on Zenga, the period of Zen painting that occurred during and after the 1600’s. However, it could easily be said that Zen art had its beginning with a visual allusion, when the Buddha gave a discourse by simply holding up a flower. This wordless message could indeed bypass all sutra study, and awaken a practitioner to direct experience through actions or meditation. This moment with the flower, which occurs as Case 6 of the Gateless Gate, is considered the first instance of Dharma transmission in Zen, when Shakyamuni “transmitted his Dharma” to Kashyapa.

Of course later on, Zen had its roots firmly in China, after Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to China from India in the sixth century, so it is no surprise that early Zen painting was deeply influenced by the Chinese style, in calligraphy as well as visual representation. More than a thousand years ago Chinese Zen masters sometimes used painting as a teaching tool, sometimes to illustrate a teaching for students to meditate on, or simply drawing a circle in the air to suggest more than words could say. These were not professionally trained painters, but most educated people of the period were proficient as calligraphers, and this was the basis of their art. Buddhism in general declined in China, but Zen held on as a counter culture until its decline in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, giving way to Neo-Confucianism as the dominant religion in China. Zen arrived in Japan in the thirteenth century.

Two sects of Zen became widespread, the Soto sect, and the Rinzai sect. Rinzai produced the most artist monks (but many masters of the Soto sect also produced great art). During the Muromachi period (1392-1568) Zen became the predominant religion in Japan. This popularity of the religion and its art gave rise to a professional class of Zen artists, as well as monk-painters. Sesshu was probably the best known of the professional monk-painters, and he primarily painted landscapes in the style that he had studied in China. During this period the Zen artists had the patronage of the wealthy court and Samurai class in Japan. Their patronage brought income and prestige into the temples.

After nearly a century of brutal civil wars in Japan at the end of the Muromuchi period, Japan was united by three warriors, none of whom promoted Zen. Confucianism took the place of Zen as the predominant religion, or ethical system, and the influence of Buddhism declined from the beginning of the Edo period (1603 to 1868).

In many ways this was good for Zen because it allowed monks to return to being monks, instead of acting as educators, politicians, courtiers, and the businessmen that they had become as the leaders of a popular religion. This also allowed for a dramatic shift in the art of Zen, on all levels, now that they were not pandering to the tastes of the politically powerful and wealthy patrons of the Muromachi period. This change in the status of Zen in Japan is what gave rise to Zenga, which many consider to be the most authentic expression of Zen painting.

Nobutada Meditating DarumaKonoe Nobutada (1565-1614)- Meditating Daruma. The text reads: “Quietness and emptiness are enough to pass through life without error.”

Zenga is the word that Japanese monks use to describe their painting and calligraphy from the 1600’s until the present. These works were not generally done for the sake of art. The paintings were mostly considered to be an aid to meditation and to lead the way towards enlightenment. Zenga is also a way of teaching; the most common subjects were Zen masters of the past, historical Zen stories, and calligraphy. Koans and poetry are also frequently included in the calligraphic text in the paintings. It was usually because of their extensive knowledge and training in calligraphy and meditation that they excelled at painting, but few Zen painters, then and now, had much, if any, formal training as artists. The only training they considered necessary were firstly, their familiarity with the use of ink and brush; and secondly, the states of deep absorption that their meditation practice helped them to cultivate.

Nobutada portrait of Tenjin (2)

In some ways Zenga was a revival movement of the earliest Chinese master’s use of art. Paintings that emphasized instruction and enlightenment won out over landscapes. But a new more vital and powerful force emerged in the use of brushwork and style. Zen masters were now free to express their own experiential reality through the use of painting, in a way that did not emphasize technical skill, but used raw directness and simplicity. This was new.







Konoe Nobutada- Portrait of Tenjin. Tenjin was a poet and deified. He lived in the ninth century, and was also known as the Shinto “sky god” of scholarship.








A Word about Form

In many of the Japanese arts, as well as philosophy, there can be a deceptively simple form that on the surface can seem somewhat rigid and standardized. Even in our practice of zazen, we have forms of sitting that we adhere to. In Zenga, certain forms or themes emerge, such as the depiction of an enso (circle), Daruma (Bodhidharma) , the Ox Herding pictures, etc. In many ways, having a fixed form is a way of freeing the artist from having to think about form. Within the fixed forms, there is absolute freedom for the artists to express themselves. After all, form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.

A really good example of this would be the paintings of Konoe Nobutada (1565-1614). He was not a monk, but a court noble from a distinguished family. He was well trained in poetry and calligraphy, but as you can see, he developed his own way of direct seeing and painting that had nothing to do with the refined calligraphy and art of his day. The immediacy, rawness, and angularity of his work were revolutionary.


Written by Randall Browning, Mountain Cloud Zen student and artist. This piece is the first installment in series he is writing about Zen and Art. 

Nobutada Images credit:  Meditating Daruma and Portrait of Tenjin were taken from The Art of Zen by Stephen Addiss (published by Harry M Abrams, 1989). The originals of these painting can be found in private collections.

Zen Landscape image credit: View of Ama-no-Hashidate, By Sesshu, CC0 Public Domain, from Wikimedia commons.

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