Blesok no. 28, September-October, 2002
Zen in the Japanese arts
According to the Buddhist legend, one day Buddha entered the assembly hall where monks were gathered to receive the instructions and, instead of delivering a sermon or organizing the practice, he simply lifted a flower. The monks were confused. Only Kasyapa smiled upon which Buddha acknowledged his enlightenment. Zen Buddhists believe that at that moment the Dharma was transmitted from Buddha to Kasyapa. Therefore, they consider Kasyapa as their First Patriarch and the founder of their lineage. But, what did Kasyapa realize? This is the question that is most difficult to answer. Even Paul Williams, one of the foremost Buddhist scholars, said, “What Mahakasyapa understood I, alas, do not know!” (113). Zen Buddhists insist that the transmission of Dharma is outside the Scriptures, not dependent on books and letters. This statement makes speaking of Zen almost impossible. Yet, it is not impossible to point at it. Of course, the warning that needs to be given here is that, at best, the explanation could serve as a finger pointing to the moon but it will not be the moon itself.
Attempting to point at Zen or, to explain indirectly what Zen is, I would like to discuss briefly a few Buddhist doctrines that influenced it and then to discuss several artistic expressions of the Zen masters.
In any form of Buddhism, the key issue is the suffering and the goal is the elimination of the suffering. Therefore, I would like to approach three doctrines (or, rather, the evolution of one doctrine in three stages) that influenced Zen, focusing on the understanding of the origin of the suffering and the best means to eliminate it. First of all, Zen is one branch of a wide movement in Buddhism that is commonly known under the name – Mahahana. One of the key concepts of all Mahayana schools is the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness. This doctrine was first developed in the body of literature commonly known as Prajnaparamita, or the Perfection of Wisdom. A work by the second century Indian monk Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika (The fundamental verses of the Middle Way), was the philosophical summary of the Prajnaparamita literature and the doctrine of emptiness was established as the central Buddhist tenet. The doctrine of emptiness, in short, says that no phenomenon has independent existence. But, that means literally – no phenomenon has independent existence, including the mind, the empty space, the Buddha, the nirvana, the emptiness itself. The distinction that must be kept in mind her is that the emptiness does not mean nonexistence. It only means a lack of independent existence or, the essence. In accord with this doctrine, the freedom or nirvàõa is not a reality outside the worldly phenomena but a realization that there is no ultimate distinction between the phenomena. That means that there is no ultimate distinction between the samsara and nirvana or between the ordinary being and the Buddha. According to this doctrine, the suffering is not inherently existent. It only appears to exist (appears as real) in the minds of the people that cling to the phenomena as though they had an independent existence. The liberation from suffering is not liberation from anything real but, rather, a realization that the problem was in clinging to the wrong view that the suffering was real. The impact of this doctrine was enormous. By its proponents, it was considered to be the second turning of the wheel of Dharma (Buddha’s first speech being the first turning).
Eventually, largely in respond to the doctrine of emptiness, another doctrine developed whose proponents considered it to be the third turning of the will of Dharma. One of the names by which this school was known was Cittamatra, meaning – mind only. I shall not enter into the technical issues of the difference between Madhyamika (the Middle Way school) and Cittamatra. For this purpose, it would be sufficient to say that while for Madhyamika all phenomena were empty, here, in Cittamatra, all phenomena were empty except the mind. In the view of this school, Madhyamika did not apply the negation correctly. It stopped on subject-object dichotomy. Cittamatra found the mind or the pure consciousness as really existing and outside the subject-object dichotomy.
The next and final development of the same idea was the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha or, the doctrine of the Buddha-essence or Buddha-nature. Proponents of this doctrine consider it to be the fourth and final turning of the wheel of Dharma. This doctrine builds on Cittamatra in this way: The mind, which is real and is a substratum to all phenomena, is the Buddha-mind, it is permanent and eternal. The Buddha-mind is empty (so, the concept of emptiness is preserved) but, it is empty of defilements that simply do not exist at all from the point of view of its own innate purity. Each one of us has that Buddha-mind. Otherwise, liberation would not have been possible. Consequently, since we already have it, there is no need of practice or cultivation. All that we need to do is to recognize it. Therefore, there is no need of sutras or disciplines. There is nothing to develop. The wish to develop something is a product of a mistaken consciousness that still operates in terms of subject-object dichotomy.
These are, in brief and very simplified form, the doctrines that are behind the Zen. When Zen masters refer to the unborn mind, original mind, mind before mother and father, mind before the world was created etc., they are all referring to the Buddha-mind. Knowing this, it becomes easier to understand the statement attributed to Bodhidharma (regardless whether he himself was a historical figure or no):
Transmission outside of any doctrine
No dependence upon words.
Pointing directly at the mind,
Thus seeing into one’s own nature and
What is said here is that the words express nothing but views. But, all views are mistaken because they are products of the mind that operates in subject-object dichotomies. The Buddhahood is attained when the person sees his real nature – his clear consciousness that is beyond dualities.
It, also, becomes easier to understand the famous legend about the Sixth Patriarch. The story, in short, is this: The Fifth Patriarch wanted a successor. In order to find a truly enlightened person, he invited all monks to compose a poem. One of the poems was written by Shen-hsiu:
The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect. (Dumoulin, p.132)
Another poem was written by Hui-neng:
Originally there is no tree of enlightenment,
Nor is there a stand with a clear mirror.
From the beginning not one thing exists;
Where, then, is a grain of dust to cling? (Dumoulin, p.133)
Shen-hsiu’s understanding still included dualities. He still perceived the phenomena as existent outside the mind. That is why he thought that there is a dust that could cling on the mirror. Hui-neng, on the other hand, had a superior understanding that was outside the duality. His poem was written from the position of the Buddha-mind. Needless to say, Hui-neng became the Sixth Patriarch.
The experience of realizing one’s own Buddha-mind is called satori. That is the goal of Zen. It should not be expected that satori is a permanent experience, even though, scriptures suggest that there were many such cases. More often, it is a short-term experience that the practitioner strives to repeat. But, while having it, the person in satori sees through his Buddha-mind. In effect, he is a Buddha, equal to all Buddhas from the history. Zen art is a product of artistic expression from the point of view of the Buddha-mind.
Now I would like to turn to the artistic expression and attempt to discuss how the phenomenal world looks from the position of this mind. First, I would like to discuss two Zen paintings.
The Zen painting is not a painting of the external object, nor a painting of an internal object. It is an expression of the Buddha-mind. It is the Buddha-mind that expresses itself creatively and it is the Buddha-mind that is being expressed in the painting. The painting is only as good as the Buddha-mind expressed itself. If there was any trace of consciousness, effort, subject-object relation, then that was not an expression of the Buddha-mind and it was not a Zen art. For comparison, Zen painting had to be an expression like Hui-neng’s but not like Shen-hsiu’s who was still in the realm of dualities and effort. True Zen painting was not analytical pursuit of the details. Rather, it was a direct and immediate (unmediated) expression of the truth. Zen painting was not a painting of the nature or any object from the perspective of the Buddha-mind. It was, rather, undirected expression of the Buddha-mind that expressed itself.
The first painting that I would like to consider was made by Hakuin and was a portrait of Bodhidharma. The most dominant feature in this painting is the powerful first stroke at the bottom of the painting. That stroke deserves a particular address. As I said above, one of the key concepts of all Mahahana schools is emptiness. Buddha-mind is mind that directly perceives emptiness. that was the image of a person who had no eyelids. But, besides that, the whole appearance has something comical in it – the eyes are turned aside, Bodhidharma appears to have no teeth, his forehead is too high… It is not a picture that one accustomed to Indian, Tibetan or East Asia’s Pure Land paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Arahats would expect to depict a Patriarch. But, this is in accord with one important characteristic of Zen Buddhism: since we all possess Buddha-mind, which means, we are all inherently enlightened, there is no need of venerating Buddhas or Patriarchs. In fact, that would only be destruction for it presupposes a mind that thinks in terms of duality. Zen art does not suggest higher respect for Buddha than for any other being. Zen art has no hesitation to look at Buddhas from the comical side. Zen art does not suggest holiness, for holiness is a term that has a meaning only in the world of dualities.
Bodhidharma was the first Chinese Patriarch. Naturally, he was fully enlightened. Yet, in Hakuin’s painting, he was not depicted as perfect, as Pure Land paintings usually depict buddhas and bodhisattvas. Again, unlike Pure Land paintings (Indian and Tibetan as well), where buddhas and bodhisattvas are always depicted as youthful and beautiful, to symbolize spiritual perfection, here Bodhidharma is old and dry. There is nothing formal in this painting. The lines are free and uneven. The painting is, also, very simple. There are no decorations at all. But, that could only testify that the author was mature and far beyond all youthful concerns. Only the essence remained in this painting. Looking at the master’s technique, it becomes apparent that there is no pretense in any move. Every stroke looks natural, without a slightest care for technical perfection. Yet, because of the absence of details and precision, the expression is not limited. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of this painting is the realization that Hakuin genuinely had no pretense at all. His Buddha-mind spontaneously expressed itself. There is no trace of wish to make a point, to “prove his rank” or to create a masterpiece. There is no sign of hindrance in the expression, no hesitation, no stirring. I must exit for a moment from my technical discussion to convey a personal experience. More than ten years ago I bought a book with this picture on the cover. At that time I considered it too simple. As years went by, I found more and more depth in it. Now I could confidently say that its depth has no bottom.
Perhaps it is not out of context to say a few words about the expression of Bodhidharma’s face. His eyes are too big, probably because
that was the image of a person who had no eyelids. But, besides that, the whole appearance has something comical in it – the eyes are turned aside, Bodhidharma appears to have no teeth, his forehead is too high… It is not a picture that one accustomed to Indian, Tibetan or East Asia’s Pure Land paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Arahats would expect to depict a Patriarch. But, this is in accord with one important characteristic of Zen Buddhism: since we all possess Buddha-mind, which means, we are all inherently enlightened, there is no need of venerating Buddhas or Patriarchs. In fact, that would only be destruction for it presupposes a mind that thinks in terms of duality. Zen art does not suggest higher respect for Buddha than for any other being. Zen art has no hesitation to look at Buddhas from the comical side. Zen art does not suggest holiness, for holiness is a term that has a meaning only in the world of dualities.
The second painting that I chose was painted by the famous Zen master and samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, who was also an accomplished painter known under the name of Niten.
Much of what was said for the previous painting could be said here. The first stroke brings out the form out of emptiness. Obviously, the first stroke is the one that outlines Bodhidharma’s body. All other strokes are built around the first one. Again, there is no complexity, no obeying the fixed rule, no rank both in Bodhidharma and in Niten. It is obvious that the author was free from attachments in terms of habits, customs, regulations or orthodoxies. It is obvious that the author did no care for perfect strokes and did not have any pretensions. Same as in the previous painting, we could see the austere sublimity of the seasoned artist, his naturalness, spontaneity and profoundness. But, at the same time, there is nothing naïve or accidental. Again, there is no bottom of the depth, which is the sure sign that the painting is the expression of the Buddha-mind.
Zen Poetry has its own development and specific features, different than other Zen art forms but, it is a product of a Zen Buddhists so, it comes from the same source – the Buddha-mind. To point at the manifestation of the Buddha-mind, I shall discuss two short poems by Basho:
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water –
A deep resonance.
It seems appropriate to choose Basho’s most famous poem because it is a representation of the master’s mature style. In the introduction of Basho’s book The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Nobuyiki Yuasa narrated a story about the composition of the poem. It is worth repeating it here in order to illustrate the Buddha-mind. The story is that the master was sitting in meditation near the pond when a frog jumped into the water making a sound that broke the silence. Naturally, the event was worth a haiku. The second part of the poem was already composed: “A frog jumped into water – a deep resonance.” Only the first part remained. One of Basho’s disciples, sitting alongside, suggested: “Amidst the flowers/ Of the yellow rose.” It was an elegant beginning, preserving the standard of a proper haiku. But, Basho, after some thought, chose: “Breaking the silence / Of an ancient pond.” Yuasa contrasted the two openings in order to illustrate the profoundness of the master’s choice: Indeed, Basho’s verses were without any pretenses, without the limitations of the form, and a lot more direct. Only after the comparison it becomes obvious how much truth they contain and how deep they reach in their simplicity and honesty. As Yuasa noticed, “Crude personification and ingenious self-dramatization have completely disappeared from his poems” (33-34).
Speaking of this poem, I would like to make a particular mention to Will Peterson’s short but profound comment. The topic of his discussion was the famous stone garden in Ryoan-ji and only briefly he mentioned the Basho’s haiku. All he said was that, “The sound of the frog plopping into the still pond creates the silence in Basho’s well-known haiku. The sound gives form to the silence – the emptiness” (107). I would like to offer my understanding of this comment. First of all, what Petersen is suggesting is that the silence that was disturbed by the frog’s plopping was Basho’s symbol for the emptiness. The realization of the emptiness is, in fact, the realization of one’s own Buddha-nature. But, how does one realize emptiness? How could the emptiness be known? If I understand well, that is exactly what Petersen is answering. Without the sound, the silence could not have been realized. That is, without the form, the emptiness could not have been realized. Without the frog jumping in the well, the sound would not have been produced and the awareness of the emptiness would not have been produced. And, without the silence (the emptiness), the sound of the frog’s plopping into the pond would not have been distinguished. In that way, form produced emptiness and emptiness produced form. This conclusion seems to be in accord with the most famous statement made in the whole Mahahana Buddhism, expressed in one sentence in the “Heart Sutra” and quoted by Petersen – “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” If I understand Petersen correctly, he is suggesting that Basho’s poem expressed nothing less than the poetic explanation of that most profound philosophical statement. If that is correct, than I would conclude that not only Zen art was influenced by the Buddhist philosophy, but the profound Buddhist philosophy was explained and affirmed through the art better than through the analytical discourses.
The next poem is very similar to the first one:
In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks. (123)
I would like to attempt a reconstruction of the depicted event. In my opinion, this poem should be approached by the analogy with the poem about the frog. Once again, it seems that Basho was sitting absorbed in meditation when a voice penetrated through him and made him aware of the emptiness. Once again, there is no trace of pretenses or deliberate symbolism or metaphor. Yet, the depth of the expression would allow a reader to find many meanings. For example, it could be discussed who was the rock – was it just an object or, was Basho himself the rock? But, from the point of view of the author of the words, obviously, there is neither distinction nor a hint that a distinction was perceived or suggested. On the contrary, there is neither difference nor any allusion that there could be a difference between the author of the poem and the rock. Once again, the voice alone allows the recognition of the silence. Once again, only through form the emptiness is recognized.
The last form of Zen art that I would like to discuss is the art of gardening. I would like to say a few words about the garden that fascinates me for years – the stone garden of Ryoan-ji. As I mentioned before, Petersen discussed it. He explained the philosophical meaning of the garden referring to the famous verse of the Heart Sutra – “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” I would like to follow his example since I don’t think that I can do better nor that anyone has offered a more profound comment.
The garden is a flat rectangular covered with sand and it contains fifteen stones in it. The stones are arranged asymmetrically, informally and they are uneven, like there was no formal rule to follow. The garden is simple, with no extra details and minimum variation of the elements. It contains only sand and stones. As in all forms of Zen art, something must represent the emptiness. Here, of course, that is the sand. Now, a rhetorical question could be asked: – If the sand represents the emptiness and the representation of the emptiness is the goal of the Zen art, then, what is the purpose of the rocks? Petersen raised the same question and answered that rocks were there because only through form we could realize emptiness. Just as Basho became aware of the emptiness only after the resonance of frog’s plopping into the pond, here the viewer could realize emptiness only through the stones.
Approaching the conclusion, I would like to say that for many years I am fascinated with the Buddhist philosophy and the famous Heart Sutra was always a puzzle. I read all existing Tibetan commentaries and many Chinese commentaries, but I did not find a thoroughly convincing one, at least, not as simple and powerful as the one by Petersen. Now, I am convinced that the stone garden helped me to understand the most profound point of Mahahana philosophy – the relation between the form and the emptiness. That leads me to a conclusion that Zen art has to be seen not only as influenced by Zen philosophy but as the most successful explanation of the Zen philosophy. It seems that Petersen was right when saying that, “The idea of emptiness is not a concept reached by analytical reasoning, but one that must be perceived in aesthetic terms. Aesthetic form is pre-requisite to conceptual perception” (107). In other words, it is impossible to think of emptiness in abstract terms. As soon as we abstract it from the art form – we lose it.
Basho, Matsuo. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. London: Penguin Books, 1966.
Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume I: India and China. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.
Fisher, E. Robert. Buddhist Art and Architecture. Thames and Hudson. 1993.
Hisamatsu, Shin’ichi. Zen and the Fine Arts. Kodansha International Ltd. 1971
Keene, Donald. “Japanese Aesthetics.” Philosophy East and West 19 (1969): 293-306.
Petersen, Will. “Stone Garden.” The World of Zen. Nancy Wilson Ross, ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1960, pp. 104 – 111.
Wilson Ross, Nancy. The World of Zen. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.
Williams, Paul. Mahàyàna Buddhism: The doctrinal foundations. London: Routledge, 1993.