ontrol the breathing.  Remove the rococo gold-framed family photo, and feel the great emptiness of Zen, a word that is attached these days to almost anything incorporating small gray stones or naked branches in vases.  It’s a handy concept for interior designers, 

furniture manufacturers and pebble merchants.  The reality of Zen would have house-proud Little Dragons and Tigers reeling in horror.  Zen means more than neat-looking chopstick rests.  It’s about austere monastic ways and stern abbots, big sticks and physical privation.  Most of all it’s about the denial of materialism, which hardly makes it the official ideology of our readership.

Out of this seemingly hopeless interior design situation arises something of genuinely universal appeal—Zen paintings.  Although conceived as objects of spiritual instruction, Zen paintings (Zenga) are more owner friendly than that.  Just as Frasier Crane can accumulate African tribal sculptures without involving himself in occult initiation rites, Zenga can be admired without gazing at a wall for several years.  Wall contemplation was always more important for the artist than the collector.  In centuries past, Zenga owners were doubtless more spiritually attuned than they are now, but there has always been an aesthetic dimension as well.  In this respect, the Japanese are so far ahead of the Asian game, it’s easy to see why they haven’t always got on with their neighbours.  Peasants in Japan sought out Zen and other art works; peasants in China were more concerned about finding their next meal.

Much of the inspiration for Zen art came from China originally.  The closely associated tea ceremony was also a Chinese innovation that flowered far longer in Japan than in its homeland.  Japanese Zen missionary expansion continued in the early 20th century, bringing Southeast Asia into the picture; a situation which is scarcely credible nowadays.  Paintings of Zen inspiration were first brushed in Chinese monasteries approximately 1,300 years ago.  Characterized from the start by starkness, the approach has changed little over the centuries.  Certain themes are constantly repeated:  iron rods, skulls, images of the great patriarch Daruma and, above all, circles.

To some extent, it is the subject matter that defines Zen art.  Occasionally there may be an original concept, or perhaps a touch of eroticism.  Usually it’s the tried-and-trusted formulae that work for a painting’s true purpose—as an object of contemplation and overall improvement.  Calligraphy features prominently, often in the form of enigmatic sayings or one-word exhortations.  Sometimes these are basic enough to be understood by those who cannot read Japanese or Chinese.  A single horizontal slash of black ink spells out “ichi” (one) and just about anyone can admire the boldness of the statement.  The meaning might be anything from “unity” to “the one vehicle of Mahayana Buddhism,” but the viewer is bound to feel something connected with oneness.

In addition to subject matter, the other Zen factor is the artist.  If Jackson Pollock were to dribble an “ichi” or if Yves Klein dragged a naked woman across his canvas, that wouldn’t make it a Zen painting.  The real thing is done by those with spiritual training.  The best are those executed in the twilight years of senior monastic figures, including women.  Leading dealer in the field, Belinda Sweet, believes there is no grey area in determining the “Zen-ness” of a painting.  “There is an entirely different feeling.  These works have the strength and focus that they do because of the intense Zen practice of the Zen masters.  That takes years and years of meditation to develop.”

Daruma, the great patriarch of Zen Buddhism,
as seen by Fugai (1568-1654),
the greatest Zen artist of his day.


The message was clearly understood by Japanese adherents of all classes.  While Zen was initially an aristocratic pursuit, by the time of the great Zenga artists of the 17th century onwards, it had a much wider audience. There was none of the mistrust of semi-abstract art that prevails in most of the world today. It is easy to see why even illiterate Japanese were so ready to accept these works.  Their power is immediate, and as the artists were often happy to produce a painting in exchange for a bowl of rice, they were also very affordable.  Simplicity has become the sophistication of the 21st century, but for a 19th century Japanese peasant it had other attractions.  There is also an earthiness that would go down well with anyone who has seen life at paddy-field level.  

The female artist Gokusen shows her sense of humour.
This painting has an inscription by the popular 20th century artist Nantembo.

The religious approach of Zen paintings is different from anything else in Asian art.  Its austerity distinguishes it for most forms of Buddhist expression, where gold content is next to godliness.  In some respects its closest relative is Islamic calligraphy, which in its earliest and purest form had a sublime divinity.  The scale, however, is not the same.  Islamic writing was an art of the book; Zen works were designed to be hung on a wall, which partly explains the growth of modern interest in Zenga.  Despite Picasso’s insistence that “art is not meant to match the sofa,” this is the precise requirement of most collectors, and simple monochrome is the most versatile match of all.

Gardens are a most admired Zen
accomplishment - even when on the
scale of this tray garden by Hakuin (1685-1768

The subject matter can also seem contemporary.  The circle (enso) is something that turns up often and is as calming as a cup of green tea.  Representing emptiness, life, rice cakes and Zen itself, this is a multi-purpose motif that works well in any setting.  A refinement of this design, in which the circle has horns and a tail added, makes a stirring embodiment of a bull.  Occasionally, the subject matter is less appropriate for the IKEA home.  Skulls serve the same purpose as Western memento mori, and have gone into a similar decline.  They do, however, tend to be less sombre than their Western counterparts and sometimes come with a touch of humour or at least cuteness.  The poems accompanying skull paintings tend to have a leveling message such as, “Here sits a former beauty dreaming of spring.”

With much of the world trying to Give Peace a Chance, some of that old 60s spirit is manifesting itself again.  The upsurge of interest in Zen art that has taken place over the past decade, especially among American buyers, is bound to escalate.  Sweet reports some activity from Hong Kong and Singapore.  The White House has yet to take up the challenge. There would be a great deal more interest from Asia if regional art lovers realized that minimalist art can come with minimalist prices.  For as little as a few hundred dollars it is possible to buy impressive works by known names, albeit not always in superb condition.  For US$250,000 you can take your pick from the Picassos and Matisses of the Zen art pantheon.

These top rankers include Hakuin, whose life straddled the 17th and 18th centuries, and Sengai, who worked through the 18th and 19th centuries.  There are legions of others whose names generate huge respect and who had quite a following in their lifetime.  Extremely popular now is Nantembo, who died in 1925.  As almost all of these artists lived unusually long lives, their output is often massive—Nantembo claimed to have produced 100,000 works.  Authenticating their work is an equally big job.  Sweet, who has put great effort into this area, relies on brushstroke and seals.  Japanese artists also used red ink seals of Chinese inspiration.  However, as one artist might have used dozens of different seals, analyzing them is a lifetime’s work.  At the same time, their brushwork could change with their mood and age.  As few Zen works come with sparkling provenances, the role of the expert dealer is vital.

For collectors seeking less problematic, more contemporary masters, there is a new generation of Zen artists from which to choose.  In the case of John Daido Loori, these take such familiar forms as “ichi” and Daruma facing a wall.  The plastic-hippie radar might start pinging when it comes to his photographic works, available in a collection called Making Love With Light.  The radar will be out of control by the time one reaches another venture, called Zen Exposure.  With a section dedicated to “Clearance Items,” there is little left of the emphasis of those not always golden, but at least the commercial element was not apparent with Zen masters from the past:  Nantembo supposedly charged only one yen for his paintings.


Photos courtesy of:  Belinda Sweet, The Morse Collection, The Genshin Collection and The Crovello Collection