There are lessons to be learned from the Buddhist masters whose work makes up “The Art of 20th Century Zen” at the Japan Society.


HE PLAYFUL, ICONOCLASTIC GLANCE OF ZEN often illuminates postwar culture. Anyone who knows something of Zen will enjoy the “living brush” of Franz Kline, for example, and smile at the mischief of John Cage and the street antics of Robert Rauschenberg.

At the same time, the American approach to this Japanese sect is often superficial and amounts to a kind of sandbox Zen: the profound freedoms of the practice are claimed without much understanding of their foundation. That Zen Buddhism is actually a rigorous religion frequently strikes the contemporary mind as old-fashioned and irrelevant—a vestigial inconvenience.  “The Art of 20th Century Zen” at the Japan Society, a survey of the work of fourteen Zen masters of the modern era in Japan, offers a stimulating contrast to this sweat-free version of the religion—one with provocative implications for the life of Zen in American culture.  

Organized by Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Stephen Addiss for the Marsh Art Gallery at the University of Richmond, the exhibit begins with the near-extinction of Zen in late-nineteenth-century Japan. The nationalist government of the period, eager to celebrate the homegrown Shinto religion, persecuted Buddhist. These difficult times helped strengthen Zen's resolve, however, and some remarkable leaders—notably Nakahara Nantenbo (1839-1925)—arose to rebuild the tattered order. The show's catalogue gives life to this struggle by telling the story of each of the masters. In addition to public burdens, for example, many suffered from serious personal difficulties. Some had painful childhoods. Some were probably alcoholics. A monk named Taneda Santoka (1182-1940) could not stay long in one place. He wandered the country, often displaying a wry sense of humor. A characteristic line of Santoka's is "Winter rain—I'm not dead yet."

It was the years of disciplined monastic practice that gave each beleaguered Zen master his idiosyncratic strength. Each depended upon an intense relationship with a living master, who encouraged fortitude in meditation and a laborious wrestling with the koans—the Zen riddles and paradoxes designed to help monks transcend their attachment to the illusions of logic. Each took inspiration from the historical example set by predecessors in an ancient tradition. For these monks, Zen was an experience, not a teaching—a way of living rather than an art. They were not trained artists, but began working with the brush late in life. They did not fear awkwardness or strive to make "good" or skillful art; their intention was simply to demonstrate, after years of struggle, the experience of an enlightened mind. This gives their work a different air from that found in most Zen-inspired art in the West.

One-Stroke Daruma, by a master named Shoun (1848-1922), could almost be the work of a radical follower of Franz Kline—until you look more closely. A monk celebrated for his concentration and determination, Daruma meditated for nine years staring at a wall. Shoun captures his essence with one long, curling sweep of an ink-laden brush; the use of this "one stroke" suggests both Daruma's unbroken concentration and the fleetingness of time. The crudeness of his form, seen from the back, evokes his still, mountainlike solidarity; so do the heavy passages of ink at the bottom and top of his body. But the brush also skitters across the surface at certain points: This monk had a quick mind and a light heart. The line seems to coil inward, as meditation does, creating a circle—a Zen symbol of enlightenment—within a circle. One the top of the image, Shoun has written:

The old wall-gazer's form
seen from behind

springtime of flowers.

That old wall-gazer: Shoun's "One-Stroke Daruma".

Shoun portrayed the old wall-gazer as solid and earthy. But his calligraphy as he writes out the poem is fluid, evanescent and flowerlike. Contemplating the rootedness of Daruma, in short, will help lead the viewer to the joyful springtime of enlightenment.

Zen's appeal to the West is not hard to fathom: The values on display in this exhibit echo many of the existential concerns of modern culture. Like much postwar art, Zen celebrates spontaneity and simplicity. It enjoys the casual, the childish, the tossed-off. (At first glance, Shoun's One-Stroke Daruma looks like nothing—the sort of nothing that can become everything.) It challenges traditional standards of competence. It prefers eccentrics to pedants. The deepest beguilement of Zen, however, is the escape it promises from certain contemporary prisons. In particular, the prison of narcissism. A Zen master finds his individuality only by transcending the self: The works here are full of quirky personality, yet stripped of any swagger and strut. In Shoun's rough scrawl, there is no feeling sorry for oneself, no luxurious or aestheticizing self-indulgence—no complaint or disappointment or in-your-face anger. And no bitter taste of ashes, as there is in the existentialism of the fifties. Only a joy that may be impossible to attain without religious rigor rarely found in New Age Zen.

In this regard, the iconoclasm of religious Zen is particularly interesting. A picture like Shoun's One-Stroke Daruma actually contains a measure of humor. Although Daruma was a founder of Zen, he is often respectfully mimicked; a nine-year meditation is ridiculously admirable. No other religion contains this vein of mischief or can convey such reverence without becoming reverential. (Imagine a Catholic artist teasing Saint Peter or giving the pope a poke in the ribs.) In religious Zen, iconoclastic shock not only awakens seekers from pretty platitudes but also prompts them to embrace life in full. While going through the exhibit, I kept contrasting the furious and showy Piss Christ of Andres Serrano, who achieved notoriety when he sank a crucifix in urine, with a famous story told about a Zen master of the tenth century. Asked by a starry-eyed student, "What is the Buddha like?", the master answered: "A dried stick of dung."

"THE GREATEST SKILL IS LIKE CLUMSINESS" is a Taoist idea that became essential part of Buddhism. It delivers an important warning to slick artists who rely too much upon their fluency: Important art must be truthful, not just talented. And that means understanding the place of the knotty, awkward and simple. No artist of the postwar period was a greater or more fluent draftsman than Willem de Kooning. In two beautiful shows of drawing now on display in New York—one at the Drawing Center in SoHo, the other at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea—you can see him struggling against the easier forms of success. To find something fresher and more surprising, he would sometimes draw with his eyes closed or with the paper turned at a cockeyed angle. The Zen masters uptown would have understood.


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