Blesok no. 39, November-December, 2004

The Phylosophical Aspects of the Chinese Landscape Painting

Sonja Dimoska

    The Chinese art, as any other art, is understood via itself. To understand the spirit of the Chinese means to understand the spirit of the eastern man. This means to understand the Chinese culture, philosophy, that is, the Chinese thought, expressed in this very art. This is maybe, much more than the west, as the art here is a complementary part of the wholeness of life, at all level of its living.
    The Chinese painting had its boom and blossom in the time of Tang (618-907) and Song (969-1279) dynasties, which were renaissance periods of the culture and civilization in general, and this paper refers to them. More specifically, the philosophical foundations and implications of the landscape painting are presented here.

1. Philosophical Foundations

    What essentially determines the art of the east, being its immanent part and at the same time its expression, is the philosophical thought. Thus, one should start from the philosophy, especially the Taoist one, as the expression of the Chinese spirit and way of thinking. The Buddhist thought, on the other side, although Indian in its origin, is significantly changed when it enters China, it is shaped and even naturally incorporated in the Chinese thought, becoming equally necessary for the understanding of the Chinese painting. The esthetic of the east “… has evolved in the unique fusion of Buddhist and Taoist principles of experience.” (Inada, 1997)
    The instable times that followed the fall of the Han dynasty (211 a.d.) weakened the Chinese empire, both politically and economically, which was reflected on the philosophical spirit as well. The intellectual exhaustion and resignation, both with the Taoists and Confucians, was favorable for the Buddhist thought, where the philosophers found the possibility of spiritual and intellectual realization. The attempt to make the Buddhism understandable by translating the sutras, resulted in a connection of the Taoism and Buddhism in a new stream, which would at the same time have the features of both – Chinese Buddhism. This connection will be expressed in a best and most authentic way in the Chan of Zen Buddhism.
    The eastern thinkers understood the insufficiency of the being to express the complete fullness of the existence. This spiritual researches, first of all, both with the Taoists and the Buddhists, resulted in strives to another aspect, which will give more complete knowledge, explain the existing and possible problems – the nonbeing. Inada replies the question on where the two streams meet: “For the Buddhist, it is the ‘discovery’ of emptiness (sunyata) in the becomingness of things or emptiness in the beings-in-becoming. For the Taoist, it is the ‘discovery’ of nothing (wu) in the Tao of things.” (Inada, 1997)
    Tao has no name, nor can it be determined. Still, it is a cosmic force, the mystic process of the world, the inner nature of everything that exists, nature which is not discovered, but revealed. It is the ruling force of the eternal change that inspires all, acts by non-acting (wu-wei), creates, not by making, but rather by growing, it creates from within. The Taoism is an affirmation of the unconventional knowing by developing of the so called peripheral or non-self-aware seeing, unintelligible penetration into everything, into the nature of things. Both Taoism and Buddhism are philosophies of the experience. Tao is not discussed generally, outside the practice, and therefore it is best understood via man, Man of Tao:

    “Therefore the sage manages affairs without action (wu-wei)
     And spreads doctrines without words.
          .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
     He accomplishes his task, but does not claim credit for it.
     It is precisely because he does not claim credit
     that his accomplishment remains with him.”
               (Lao Tzu, Ch.2 transl. by Wing-Tsit Chan)
    In Zen Buddhism this is related to wu-shin, or non-mind, which is a state when the mind functions freely, non-self-consciously, a spiritual state of peace and direct insight. Mind is not a component of the cognitive process, it is the process. To break the appearance of the world and to experience it in its “it-ness” (tathata). It is seeing through, seeing the things as they are. “Tathata indicates the world as it is, unhidden and un-separated by symbols and definitions of thoughts. It indicates something specific and current, not abstract and conceptual.” (Watts, 1982, p.67)
    Both Taoism and Buddhism are holistic schools. In the Taoism everything is in The One, everything that is real, everything that is existing and potential, everything that is and can be is in the eternal creating process of Tao. Yin and Yang are only the energetic models of its occurrence. There is no dichotomy in Buddhism as well, although it can be thought at first view. Thus, the nirvana and samsara, shunya and maya are not opposite things. To “escape” the samsara, and strive towards nirvana, means to confirm and continue the karmic process of return. Because: “The search for nirvana implies the existence of the problem of samsara.” (Watts, 1982, p.64) Things are not opposite, they are One. The emptiness is revealed in the new viewing of the reality. Seeing it is its “it-ness”. It covers all, all the shapes dissolve in it, and at the same time it is every existing form. Therefore, the negation in Buddhism does not refer to the reality, but to our idea of it. “The shape is no different than the emptiness; emptiness is no different than shape, Shape is really emptiness; emptiness is shape.” (Watts, 1982, p.65)

2. The Painting

    The art is a result of the supreme spirit, who has understood the occurrence, because he sees the essence. The world is not a whole of opposites, nor is the appearance an antipode of the essence. That is why the wise man is not upset before the visible, measurable, empirical; in his perception of the Whole, there are no parts. And to come to this spot, means to be in a state of wu-nien or non-thinking. Then the subject and the object are equal. That is why the Buddhism has no dislike towards the natural shapes. On the contrary, the Nature is a medium via which the awaken intuition is identified with the tatha. The Taoist closeness with, and the non-separateness from the nature is well known. The Creator is the nature itself, in harmony with itself and the universe, it is the expression of its creative force.
    The Chinese painting seems simple at first. This characteristic of the painting is due to the Chinese philosophical point of view, which implies a perception of the things in their wholeness and eternal movement, as integral parts of a functional whole of the existence, and not as separate fragments. And everything that is in unity and harmony can only be simple. K.K. Inada points at the eastern “enlightening” revelation, the awareness “… of the limitations of the divisiveness or fragmentation within the ambience of the fullness of existence.” (Inada, 1997). Life is lived and thought at the same time, one not excluding the other. The Chinese painting can thus be understood as a visible realization of what is thought. “The Eastern view of things prevented any dichotomous treatment of anything from the outset and in turn fostered exploration into the fullness of the becoming process.” (Inada, 1997) This holistic understanding of the world, very understandable, puts its stamp on the painting as well. The painting can thus be treated as an esthetic expression, but much more, as a philosophical view of the world that came to live. In this way, the author becomes marginalized, the work of art is deprived of itself, and it he becomes just a prolonged hand of the Universal Principle that manifests itself in the work. Finally, it would confirm the affirmation of the individual, temporary, before the Ultimate Reality. This is confirmed by the impression of absence of the motive for self-confirmation with the painting masters. The absence of the passion for self-affirmation and proving oneself is a reflection of the wisdom of the one who has already reached the top. In Buddhism we find the same thins with one of the basic principles – negation of being. Being is but one of the ways of maya, false construction, sum of changeable states, inconsistency in continuity. The Vajracchedika says: “No Bodhisattva, is he really is Bodhisattva, sticks to the idea of some ego, personality, creature or separate entity.” (given with Watts, 1982, p.62). And the Taoism says:
    “Therefore the sage places himself in the background,
          but finds himself in the foreground.
          He puts himself away, and yet he always remains.
     Is it not because he has no personal interest?
     This is the reason why his personal interests are fulfilled.”
                 (Lao Tzu, Ch.7 transl. by Wing-Tsit Chan)
    The painting techniques that refer to paint brush movements are especially important in the Chinese painting, as well as in the calligraphy. The painting standards were not strictly given before; they were more of established techniques of drawing. The painters were never “just” painters. This opens a new dimension of the Chinese culture. To become an artist is much more than to know the paintbrush movements, To be an artist means to know the literature – the classics, philosophy, history, tradition, and to be a poet. The spiritual level is not only significant, it is crucial. To know the literature means to read philosophy, which is one and the same, to know the tradition means to know one’s own history, to write poetry means to be skillful in calligraphy. The expert in nay field has achieved a skill with perception and inner balance, which enables him to express himself creatively. Thus, the wise man is involved in an art as a rule, and at least in ancient China, the top artist is knowledgeable in wise teachings as a rule. The one who knows his origin knows the laws of the Nature, the natural courses of the World, the Reason of everything that exists, knows that he is part of the Universe, and it is Nothing. It is a spontaneous result of the Nature, its work, same as itself.
    Each segment of the world, and therefore the art is represents, is an expression not so much of itself, but of the changes and transformations, some of which are visible from the “outside”, some from the “inside”. And what is a precondition of all changes is the eternally unchangeable, everything happens in it, more specifically with it.
Tao is unchangeable, but what is the reason are the two basic polarizing principles Yin and Yang, they make the living nature of everything that exists. “This immense web consisting of rolling change does not itself change. It is the ‘un-carved block’ devoid of definable shape, the ‘mother’, matrix of time, including both ‘being’ and ‘not being’, the present, future and vanished past – the Great Whole of continuous duration, infinite space and infinite change.” (Legeza, 1975, p.11)
    Therefore the portrayal of harmony is not only a bare reconstruction, it means creation of harmony, in a new dimension. It must not be fixed in the two dimensionality of the drawing, the eternal dynamic game of Yin and Yang also continues here. K.K. Inada, defining the Chinese painting as asymmetric, behind the duality of the appearance, symmetric, says: “We are able to conclude that perception is not merely a one– or two– or even three-dimensional phenomenon but has deep grounding in the being-nonbeing dynamics, thus revealing its natural fullness and completeness at all time, however unconscious we may be to the elements of the process.” (Inada, 1997)
    The spirit of Zen and the spontaneity of the wu-wei is reflected in the painting technique as well. The stressed intuition and spontaneity in the philosophical teachings is also dominant in the painting. This painting technique is practically self-limiting, because it implies a minimum form and minimum color, and maximum intensity of expression (Michael, 1994, p.131). As little action and acting as possible is the basic principle. This is especially representative in the Zen Buddhist painting, where the scarceness in the moves is brought to extreme. The brush is left to paint itself. Every touch of the brush on the paper is the moment of concentration of the spirit. The impression of the artist is expressed immediately and directly, without thinking. The sharpened spirit acts with each single move of the brush, without mistakes, because the corrections are not only allowed, they are impossible, the missed moment of inspiration can not be “corrected”.
    The “goal” of the landscape painting is not to show the reality in details, but to reproduce the image of the reality, because the painting is not a representation of the nature, it is the nature itself. The painting is an esthetic expression of the one who has matched his own spirit with the course of the universe. Therefore, the Chinese painting shows, it does not explain, just as philosophy, it is “sketching of ideas.” “They (masters) show us the life of nature – mountains, waters, fog, stones, and birds – just as the Taoism and Zen experience them. It is a world where man belongs, but the one that he does not dominate; it is enough to itself. Because it is not ‘made’ for anybody and has no purpose.” (Watts, 1982, p.159) The painting is a creation of the freedom of spirit, it is the meaning of the teachings themselves, both Taoism and Buddhism. “Landscape painting, in Chinese, “mountains and water” painting, became much more than a matter of skillful representation of physical reality, rather a matter of sensing and representing the spirit believed to be manifested in nature.” (Michael, 1994, p.92)
    The human figure, small, barely noticeable is obligatory in the landscapes. These are representations of wise men, fishermen, wonderers through mountain ridges, friends drinking tea in the pagoda in the middle of bristling pine trees. The presence of man in the middle of all natural wealth is not an accident. There are two explanations about it. One is to present “… to confine the figures to insignificance in relation to the overwhelming power of nature (typical of the Song period).” (van Briessen, 1998, p.104) The other interpretation will be found again in the philosophy of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, whose relation to nature is already known. The nature is not opposed to man, nor is man the one who should conquer the nature. They are in unity and harmony, so that the problem of nature is the problem of man. As D.T. Suzuki says: “Man came from Nature in order to see Nature in himself; that is, Nature came to itself in order to see itself in Man.” (Suzuki, 1956, p. 236) The picture is not an expression of the personal thrill, it is not a representation of the author, it is the experience of everyone looking at it. This is best explained by indicating some techniques typical of Chinese painting, such as the three-dimensional space and central perspective. The painting does not have a focus point, and the different segments of one same work are seen from different points of view (because of the usage of many perspectives), which practically draws the observer to wonder around the landscape. This creates the strange feeling of going against the “logic” of the eye. The central perspective is always someone’s. In Chinese painting there are no shadows used, because it is again someone’s point of view The work of art does not belong to the one who painted it, it is a window for everyone who can see through it, who understood the “law” of the course of nature.
    The Chinese landscape painting is monochromatic, the black ink is the basic means of expression, But the black is not a color, or, it is, so to say a color without prejudice, a represent of every other possible color. That is why Inada qualifies the Chinese painting as non-chromatic or achromatic. (Inada, 1997)
    Another dominant segment of the Chinese painting is the empty space, the so called corner painting. The emptiness is understood as the manifestation of the Tao, or, it is the thing that encompasses all, with the Buddhists. The canvas is an endless space with countless possibilities to visually represent Tao, that is, its occurrence. The empty space can represent the sky, fog, water, but also not to have a specific function at all; however, it can give the necessary balance in the art work seen as a whole with the steeply high mountains and strong water cascades that cut the landscape. As Alan Watts says, it creates the feeling of “marvelous Emptiness” from which the event suddenly occurs (Watts, 1982, p.161). The painting is a perfect balance of shape and emptiness, knowing to say enough, and not go on.
    The successful art work is also a positive magic to the world and those who observe it. It is not only a question of esthetic experience. Every segment of the painting is a pure, non-verbal meaning that indicates to the environment, surrounding, and leads to the inner, which is eventually the same. The encouragement and development of the awareness for the one’s own relation and participation in the universe is a spiritual elixir that expands the perception and uplifts the spirit.

* * *

    What makes the Chinese painting especially provocative from philosophical aspect is its immanent conditionality by the philosophy. Both basic philosophical teachings that the Chinese art is related to are the Taoism and Buddhism. Both of them are the philosophies of experience, and this is precisely why the Chinese are the people of practice, in direct contact with nature, which means life. The esthetic is not a separate segment of life, just as the man is not an antipode of nature. All the wealth of expression is only a torn part of the spiritual unity of the life manifestations.
    The Chinese philosophy is read is every shape of life and in every way of expression. In this case, the painting that has the most authentic philosophical mark has been selected. Thus, the painting becomes a sole means of understanding Taoism and Chinese Buddhism, in the attempt to understand it. Still, this does not exhaust nor neglect its esthetic value. Moreover, it obtains the real treatment of legitimate philosophical discipline. The painting becomes an indicator towards the higher intellectual levels and a medium of spiritual education. It seems that the art and philosophy have had such a strong sublimation in no other culture; thus philosophy has an artistic expression, and art becomes a visual philosophy.
(The theme is explained in more details in my diploma work published in the Филозофија magazine, no.9, March, 2004)

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Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska

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