art is exciting, bold and
direct. It has a dynamic energy
that celebrates life in all its mystery and paradox. Visually some works are
dramatic and powerful. Some are playful and humorous,
delicate and lovely. The
art form engages the mind as well as the eye through the poems and
The words of the calligraphy can be very inspiring, even if one is not
interested in Zen as philosophy or religion.
Zen poetry is often earthy and full of common sense.
first became aware of paintings by Japanese Zen masters when I saw a book, Zen
Painting, by Awakawa Yasuichi. I
was drawn to the cover painting: an exuberant and amusing painting of Hotei
laughing so hard that he rolled over backward.
had been deeply interested in Eastern philosophy since student days, so was
excited and surprised to find an art form that combined humor and joy with
serious spiritual and philosophical meaning.
The delight that I saw in that Hotei painting summed up true
can still see that book cover in the store window.
It was a pivotal moment that changed my life. I did not know it, but it was the beginning of my career as a
dealer in Zen art. The love that
this first painting evoked in me has deepened over the 23 years that I have
had the honor and privilege of helping to bring this art form to the West.
the artistic qualities are often dynamic-amusing-lovely, it is the sensed
spirit of the Zen master himself that is Zen art's real essence and reason for
existence. It is understood that
when the Zen master brushes a painting, his very life force and enlightenment
are imparted to the ink by his intense concentration. For Zen masters, the act of painting is a moving meditation.
paintings were requested by students and lay persons who respected and admired
a particular master. They wanted
a physical reminder of that sensed spirit to serve as a talisman and
influences every aspect of Japanese culture yet the art is just starting to be
appreciated in the West. A guided
tour follows of some masters and themes.
fig. A "Daruma" by Fugai,
(1568-1654) evokes the most mysterious and deeply intense feeling.
Even his name has that quality: it means "Beyond the Wind".
You almost feel as though you see his art through a veil or mist.
Fugai's Zen meditation gave him depth and character that you feel in
was a hermit monk who lived in caves
much of his life. Many years
ago I had
opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the places where Fugai
had lived. His main cave was
small with an almost cozy feeling.
Outside was a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji. Farmers would leave him rice; in exchange he would give them
a painting or calligraphy.
Daruma (Bodhidharma in Sanskrit) is
the first patriarch of Buddhism, he often appears in Zen art. He left India for China where Buddhism was taking hold as a
new religion. He was not pleased
with the way Buddhism was taught in China and wanted to propagate his austere
a legendary interview with the Emperor of China, Daruma told him that all his
efforts on behalf of Buddhism had gained him no merit at all.
When the Emperor asked him the first principle of Buddhism, he replied
"Vast emptiness, nothing holy!".
When the exasperated and probably furious Emperor demanded "Who
are you?!". He replied
"I don't know", and abruptly departed to meditate nine years facing
is a master at painting Daruma (fig. A). He knew him inside out,
because he lived in much the same way-in seclusion and meditation. Probably for this reason his Darumas have a particularly
intense haunting and living quality. Twice
in his life Fugai was invited by Daimyo
Inaba Masanori to live in Odawara Castle.
He left abruptly like Daruma similarly unimpressed.
by Fugai is extremely rare. The
fine example in fig. 5 reads 'Tenjin' which is the honorary title of
Sugawara Michizane (845-903), the patron saint of scholarship and
A scholar seeking inspiration probably requested it of Fugai. In Zen art, a revered person's name becomes a word portrait, so this
work blends portrait and calligraphy.
portrait of Hotei
crossing a stream, Fugai shifts the mood to
| (fig. 6). At
times he gives the subject a sad and serious face, but here Hotei shows
joy at the beauty of life.
interesting thing about Zen art is how often the characters evoke the object
depicted, as we see in the calligraphy by Daido (1680-1752) (fig. 7).
The large character on the right is 'wind'.
This work gives a strong feeling of movement. The
flying white (where the paper
shows through the brushstrokes)
fig. 7 Daido, "Wind"
The wind of human kindness blows over the
four seas; private collection.
feeling of transparency and
In this character for wind, Daido has shown us the essence of wind
fig. 8 Daishin,
(Center) Hail to Amida Buddha. (Sides) Do not create evil. Do all that is
the monks did small portable scrolls that people could take on their travels.
fig. 8 by Daishin (1656-1730) is an example.
The central line says, "Hail to Amida Buddha".
This phrase, called the nembutsu (prayer
to Buddha), is not Zen, but a central aspect of the Pure Land School of
calligraphy on the sides says, "Do not create evil, do all that is
good"-a famous Zen aphorism and, like so much of Zen calligraphy, good
counsel for anyone. It was common
for Zen masters to honor and respect the practices of other Buddhist sects and
religions by brushing phrases particular to them. They would encourage lay people in whatever they believed.
is a very powerful and direct artist. His
work has a wildness that feels modern, yet
he died in 1751.
His calligraphic style suggests a dynamic
person with a strong
personality. From what we know of
his life, this is right. As a
teacher he was said to be sharp and strict-"the devil of the Tamba
example of this same central phrase, done two centuries later by Nantembo
(1839-1925), is fig. 23.
& Jittoku single line calligraphy
fig. 9 Chingyu, "Kanzan and Jittoku"
Masters Kanzan and Jittoku, always in perfect accord, sporting together in high
Anthony C. Harrison Collection
charming large painting (fig. 9) by Chingyu (1743-1822) is of Kanzan and
Jittoku. The brushwork is
exuberant and the faces joyous, as often with this subject.
The old friends laugh in delight at a blank piece of paper containing
'Vast emptiness, nothing holy!'
(13 string Japanese zither) painted by Reitan (1746-1806)
is an unusual
art (fig. 10) and was probably done for a disciple or musician friend. (For more
information on this painting from the Zen Paintings catalogue please click here.)
line calligraphy is mainstream for Zen artists and the principal format
for tea school scrolls.
10 Reitan, "Koto", private collection
The world's gloom dispelled completely by the subtle tones of music that
plucks at our heartstrings
11 by Mokuan (1611-84) is a painting of Daruma, because the words evoke
him. It says, "great teacher and grand patriarch,
immigrated to Japan with a group of monks from China at the fall of the
Ming dynasty. Foreigners
were forbidden to land on Japan's main islands then and were confined to
an island off Kyushu, in the southwest yet the monks' reputation was so
good, their sterling characters and Zen realization so highly thought
of, that the Shogun invited
them to build a temple at Uji near Kyoto.
Mampuku-ji, their main temple, is still active today.
classical Zen format, also seen in the works by Daido and Gesshu (1618-96)
(fig. 12), is a single large character followed by an explanatory poem: it is
known as a "one word barrier".
poem "Stone" by Etsuzan (1629-1709) exemplifies how a Zen saying can
be valued by ordinary people (fig. 13).
A non-Zen practitioner can grasp and gain from recalling the true value
of patience and perseverance.
came from China in 1657 to study with Mokuan.
He became 7th abbot of Mampuku-ji in 1705, six years after this
was an important Japanese monk who received Zen training from Doshagen, a
Chinese immigrant monk. His
calligraphy reflects this influence.
(1685-1768) is widely considered the most important Zen master of the last 500
years. He revitalized
system of Zen
fig. 11 Mokuan, The Great
Teacher and Grand Patriarch Daruma, The David and Alfred Smart
Museum of Art, The University of Chicago; purchase, Brooks McCormick,
In this discipline, the student is given a seemingly nonsensical word puzzle
called a koan to solve, such as the one Hakuin himself invented, "What is
the sound of one hand clapping?"
a koan is given, it must be intensely concentrated on at all times until the
student's mind, having exhausted every possible answer, gives up and the
"correct" answer emerges from the depths of the student's own being.
14 is a painting of a dragon staff by Hakuin, called an inka, a kind of diploma that Hakuin presented to lay people who
solved the "one hand" koan.
14 Hakuin, "Certificate of solving the sound of one hand
clapping", Genshin Collection
fig. 15 Hakuin,
his painting of a tray garden (bonseki) (fig.
15), Hakuin used a wet brush to get the beautiful soft, wet ink tones.
fine painting of Kan'non, the Goddess of Compassion (fig. 16), is by Reigen
(1721-92) a direct disciple of Hakuin. Compassion
and serenity fill this work. It
is most unusual for Zen art to reveal the face of compassion in such a deeply
following two paintings are by Suio (1717-89), another of Hakuin's direct
Together they hint at
the importance of strength and gentleness.
(?-867) was a monk in 9th century China.
He is famed for sudden deafening shouts in response to student's
questions about the Buddha's nature. He
founded the Rinzai sect of Zen to which Hakuin and his disciple Suio belonged.
fig. 4, Rinzai holds a hoe with which he planted pine trees.
Manual labor is a respected part of Zen practice.
This painting illustrates the Zen master's strength of character and
conveys the direct and no-nonsense attitude that Rinzai was famous for.
the joy of enlightenment is most consistently depicted in paintings of Hotei.
Suio's version (fig. 3) has a soft sweet quality.
16 Reigan, "Kan'non", Rougeau Collection; She manifests herself
unstintingly for the sake of all beings.
Hotei gently holds a flower. In
a famous sermon, the Buddha once silently held up a single flower.
enso ('circle') is the symbol of Zen
itself and so an important art subject. fig.
17 is by an influential monk named Inzan (1758-1817), a 'grand-disciple'
of Hakuin who trained many teachers. All of Hakuin Rinzai Zen (there are other schools) today
comes through either Inzan or Takuju.
circle itself represents the material world with its endless cycles.
The space in the middle represents the emptiness at the heart of Zen.
This enso was brushed in two strokes, though one is usual.
Inzan was probably trying to show directly the duality of good and evil, male and female...that together make up the whole of our
art is the only religious art that I know with a sense of humor and
fig. 17 Inzan, "Enso", Private collection;
My mind is like the autumn moon.
fig. 19 Unknown (c. 1860), Every day keep this relentless rod in mind and you will be on your way to heaven., private collection
are these more evident than in Zen paintings of animals.
The charming shrimp (fig. 18) by Shunso (1751-1839), a brother monk of
Inzan, was probably done for a New Year's celebration.
The shrimp is a congratulatory symbol wishing someone long life.
Its bent back recalls the posture of someone old.
wonderful Zen works are by unknown artists.
On the iron rod (fig. 19), the monk has left us his seals and
signature, but we
18 Shunso, "Shrimp,"
An ocean of good fortune, a spring of 10,000 years!, Genshin Collection
nothing of his history, as his name is unrecorded in large
can safely say that he was in the Hakuin line, as Hakuin liked the theme of
the iron rod carried by demons, and often depicted it in much the same style.
Such paintings remind us to do good in this world: a strong, lively
more information on this painting from the Zen Paintings catalogue
please click here.)
20 Yamaoka Tesshu, Bamboo Thicket,
S. Borsook Collection
Tesshu (1836-88) as a Zen layman, master swordsman, calligrapher and
influential statesman. During the
changeover from Tokugawa rule to Emperor Meiji, he helped arrange the peaceful
surrender of Edo Castle, saving many lives on both sides.
In 1877 Tesshu was
appointed secretary to Emperor Meiji. This
dynamic man was over 6 feet tall and weighed 240 lbs (115 kg.) in his 20s.
He threw himself into whatever task was at hand, whether a drinking
contest or Zen meditation.
work (fig. 20) reads 'bamboo thicket'—probably the name of a villa or
It is a powerful
reminder to live life to the fullest, in delicate and lyrical calligraphy on a
fan (fig. 21).
fig. 21 Yamoaka Tesshu, Getting caught up in ten thousand affairs is like being drunk beneath the flowers. A hundred years of worrying will make you
miserable., private collection
well-rounded warrior was also expected to be sensitive and able to express
himself in poetry.
fig. B "Daruma" by Nantembo,
friend Nantembo was a great 20th century Zen master. The portrait of Daruma by Nantembo (fig. B) is rendered in
a classical way: a bearded Caucasian-looking man stares out.
A few lines define the robe.
fig. 23 Nantembo, Hail to Amida Buddha, private collection
earring hints at his Indian origin. Nantembo's
portrait has abbreviated the line of the robe even more than in Fugai's
Daruma: a large brush loaded with dark ink defines the line of the robe
in a simple, sweeping statement. Nantembo's
Daruma has a whimsical, questioning quality.
the subject is the same, and the composition similar
the feeling is quite different.
We intuit their varying characters and personalities.
2 Nantembo, "Daruma", private collection. The form of the grand patriarch facing the wall--or is it a melon or an eggplant from around Yahata in Yamashiro?
Hail to Amida Buddha (fig.
23), Nantembo has used the classical subject for single line calligraphy seen
in Daishin's (fig. 8). We can sense the different personality and era by
comparing the two. (For
more information on this painting from the Zen Paintings catalogue please
again has fun with the "grand patriarch" in this lively depiction
from behind, of Daruma in seated meditation (fig. 2). One brushstroke says
it all: no superfluous detail. The
poem below exemplifies how Zen monks use humor to treat a serious
philosophical concept: the underlying unity of all things.
Tesshu Chisei, "Rooster", The J. Sanford and Constance Miller Foundation
delightful rooster in fig. 1 is by Tesshu Chisei (1879-1937); just a few
strokes give it strength, energy, delight and optimism.
Perhaps it was painted to celebrate the year of the rooster in 1933.
22 Deiryu, "Enso", Rushton Collection; A pure breeze rustles the leaves.
and Kasumi Bunsho
(1895-1954) was a major disciple of Nantemb6.
His enso (fig. 22) is a study in contrasts to that by Inzan (fig.
17) which has solid dark ink, done with a wet brush. The ink has pooled beyond
the lines of the enso, giving it a soft quality.
Deiryu enso was made with a dry brush in pale gray ink. The bamboo in the center may illustrate the strength
of emptiness (often the enso's center); Zen people believe this is
the ground of all life.
is rare in Zen art: fig. 24 is the first rendition by a Zen monk I have seen
of the "Girls' Day" theme. It was likely requested of Deiryu by a
lay disciple with a child who wished to hang it in her tokonoma on March 3rd. He
made this traditional subject a Zen painting by adding a koan.
more information on this painting from the Zen Paintings catalogue
please click here.)
25 is also a koan: a large character for
24 Deiryu, "Girls' Day Dolls", private collection; A stone woman dances to a tune of longevity; a wooden man sings a song of peace.
mu (emptiness)—often the
first given to Zen students. Kasumi Bunsho (1905-99) clearly grasped its
meaning. Solving the koan implies not just grasping the concept, but
experiencing the emptiness underlying the material world.
25 Kasumi Bunsho, Mu (emptiness), The J. Sanford and Constance Miller Foundation
practitioners say it involves not just intellectual understanding, but
intuitive experience with your whole self.
'mu' is a particularly fine example. The calligraphy embodies the concept.
The character seems to be just emerging from nothingness, yet going
back into it, coming toward you, and receding from you simultaneously.
this pair of paintings of monks on their begging rounds (fig. 26), Kasumi
Bunsho continues the tradition created by his 'grand-teacher' Nantembo and his
monks are an important part of Zen practice.
It reminds the monks to be humble
and that we are all interdependent. They recall that they seek enlightenment
not only for themselves, but for all beings.
an overview of the masters and many popular subjects used in this art form,
let us look at collectibility. Compared
to other schools and forms of Japanese painting, Zen art is affordable as it
is only starting to become widely appreciated.
art prices begin under $1,000 and the average is $2,000-5,000.
A collector lucky enough to acquire the finest Fugai or Hakuin can
expect to pay $40,000 or more.
26 Kasumi Bunsho, "Begging Monks",
great majority of paintings are scrolls; works also come on fans, screens,
wooden plaques and ceramics.
of Zen art come from varied backgrounds.
Many are knowledgeable about other art forms, and most are not Zen
followers, but drawn to the works' strength, depth, immediacy and vitality.
stress how the paintings reveal themselves over time, giving the viewer new
insights with each encounter, and say the paintings have a dynamic, fresh and
contemporary feel, although many are hundreds of years old.
They are all 'modern', because abstract.
lovers are intrigued by the challenge of working within the limits of kanji.
What creativity, feeling and originality can be brought to bear
within those confines?
I started as a dealer, I knew that forgeries abound in any art form loved and
collected over the years. I was
lucky early on to study authentication with Professor Stephen Addiss.
have built, and continue to add to, an extensive archive of photographs of
seals, signatures and multiple examples of a subject by many Zen artists. The
archive has been a valuable tool in determining authenticity, as well as in
appreciating an artist's development over time.
am also fortunate to have Professor John Stevens translate the Zen poems on
the paintings. He brings his extensive study and practice of Zen and highly
developed poetic sensibility to the work.
am privileged to be able to spend time with this art. With these paintings, I feel that I am in the best possible
company. Over the years my
appreciation of the artists has deepened into respect. There is love at first
sight and there is the love after more than twenty years. Possibly it is all
one love—'Vast emptiness, nothing holy!'
Sweet is a dealer in Japanese Zen paintings in Berkeley, California. Inquiries may be directed to Tel: 510-204-9212, Fax: 510-540-1057,
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: www.zenpaintings.com