The Worldwide Topic “Zen”! Can You Feel Zen Through These Unique Works of Art?

  • UENO
  • No matter where you live in the world, you have probably heard about Zen. When you hear the word Zen, the image of meditation and pursuit of knowledge is strong. Additionally, many people probably believe that Zen is difficult to understand and that it is a whole other world which does not affect our daily lifestyle. However, Zen’s teachings are actually part of everyday life. Ordinary tasks and behavior are all considered to be a part of the pursuit of knowledge.

    For example, its practices can be found in everyday tasks such as making food, or cleaning. Through these tasks, you are able to look inside yourself, which is an important part of the Zen approach to the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, it’s possible to practice Zen with your regular lifestyle, especially through Zengo (Zen words) which is well-known to be a good first step towards adopting this way of life and is the abbreviated term for the state of its teaching and realization. The number of people all over the world practicing Zen has increased in recent years in order to live a rich life. Even businesspeople such as Steve Jobs have practiced it to bring balance to their work. Through this article, you can see some famous works to deepen your understanding of Zen and its history, essence, and influence on Japanese culture.

    Zen’s History and Traits

    Zen was brought to China from India by the Bodhidharma shown in the picture above, in the 500s and was spread by the monk Linji Yixuan. Before long, it also spread to Japan. In the 1200s, starting with samurai families, the imperial family, and the imperial court, Zen influenced many aspects of Japanese culture and society. During the Edo period, Hakuin Ekaku, as well as other high priests of Zen, spread its practices to the masses. Now, even in modern times, many people practice Zen for spiritual support.

    Interestingly, Buddhist monks do not preach any certain scripture. Instead, the teachings from the heart of the master are supposed to connect to the pupil’s heart. With an intuitive connection between master and pupil, the pupil can discover the Buddha within oneself and reach realizations about one’s circumstances or surroundings. Therefore, as the Zen saying, “Issai Kaiku” (which means “matter is void” or “all is vanity”) goes, all existence is insubstantial and when wondering “what is Zen?” it is ideal for each person to achieve this realization through the pursuit of knowledge.

    Are you confused about what Zen is after all this? Don’t worry! You can experience Zen through works of art which capture the heart and meaning behind it. Let’s take a look at some of these works.

    Art Related to Zen
    National Treasure ‘Huike (Eka) Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma (Daruma)’ By Sesshu Toyo, Muromachi period, dated 1496 (Meio 5) Sainen-ji Temple, Aichi, latter term display

    National Treasure ‘Huike (Eka) Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma (Daruma)’ By Sesshu Toyo Muromachi period, dated 1496 (Meio 5) Sainen-ji Temple, Aichi

    It is said that the unique characteristics of Zen Buddhism were established by the monk Bodhidharma. The artwork pictured above, ‘Huike (Eka) Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma (Daruma)’ is a famous National Treasure depicting Bodhidharma. A monk named Huike, to prove his devotion to become an apprentice, has cut off his left arm and is offering it to Bodhidharma who is facing the wall while meditating in this dramatic scene.

    Due to Zen being practiced by oneself stressed through following the rules of ones lifestyle, meditation and inner dialogue, compared to other religions, there are few statues and images of Buddha used for worship. Nevertheless, there are many statues of important figures. Pictures above is the ‘Rahula (Ragora Sonja) from a Set of the Seated Eighteen Arhats’ a work of great interest which was made in the 1600s. An arhat is a sage who has well understood the teachings of Buddha. Take a look at the details of the artwork above. Rahula has an ugly face but shows the Buddha living inside of his heart in this impressive piece. In this way, it is one of the characteristics of the Zen Buddhism temple that is rarely seen in other religions.

    The Zen monks who went back and forth between China and Japan did not only bring the Zen ideology to Japan but also several works of art and different customs. A prime example is ink paintings. Also, at the time Japanese people created many things influenced by China such as their interior decoration and new types of aesthetic sense. The enormous pictures painted onto the scrolls which characterize Zen Temples originated from this sense of beauty. In addition, leading artists of the time pitted their skills on large screen and brought about a style for the new age. While it does not directly depict the image of Buddha, the above, ‘Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons (from a Set of Panel Paintings for the Hojo [abbot’s chamber] at Daisen-in Temple)’, is one of these beautiful pictures, and is a masterpiece representing the culture of ink paintings combined with Zen. The carefully painted scenery really draws your eye to this piece.

    Above is the folding screen work with brilliant colors called ‘Dragon and Tigers’ which is about 2 meters high. It depicts the battle between the dragon flying down from the sky causing wind and rain, and the tiger couple running around the forest. The tiger in the painting looks as if it is shouting “kaatsu!”, which seems to symbolize the word “喝(katsu)” which was used by Linji Yixuan, who spread Buddhism throughout China. This word was shouted in order to lead pupil to the way of Zen.

    Special Exhibition: ‘The Art of Zen From Mind to Form’

    The artwork introduced here is all quite famous and will be on display at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park from October 18th to November 27th, 2016, so you will be able to see it in person. This exhibition commemorates the 1150th Memorial of Linji Yixuan, the forefather of the Rinzai and Obaku Zen schools, and the 250th Memorial of Hakuin Ekaku, the Zen priest who revived the Rinzai school in Japan. It was also held in Kyoto this April but some of the artwork, such as ‘Seated Figure of Hojo Tokiyori’ shown above is only on display in Tokyo. The seated figure above is a motif of the Zen influence during the Warring States period.

    A selection of 240 works that have been passed down through various temples in Japan will be on display including 22 National Treasures and 104 Important Cultural Properties! Through these treasures, you will be able to learn about the history of military commanders from the Warring States Period, the culture of the tea ceremony and how they are related to Zen. Wouldn’t you like to look into the ancient world of Zen?

    Special Exhibition: ‘The Art of Zen From Mind to Form’ Official Website

    Location: Tokyo National Museum, Heiseikan
    Exhibition Period:
    October 18th (Tuesday) to November 27th (Sunday) 2016
    Days closed: Monday

    There will be some changes to the exhibit.
    Main exhibition changes:
    First term: October 18th (Tuesday)-November 6th (Sunday)
    Latter term: November 8th (Tuesday)- November 27th (Sunday)

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