Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    enlightening strokes
by Fred Stern
Begging Monks
Large Daruma
One-Stroke Daruma
Sohan Gempo
Inscribed Teabowl
Chin Rest
Woman Looking a Mirror
"The Art of 20th-Century Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Masters," Nov. 19, 1998-Jan. 10, 1999, at the Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.

In no other religion has art in all its facets assumed so important a role as it has in Zen Buddhism. For centuries Buddhist masters have inked their brushes and wielded them gently yet forcefully, working on rice paper embellished with calligraphy, to produce black-and-white images of teachers and patriarchs, animals and landscapes.

Though the current show at the Japan Society focuses on Zen art of the 20th century, it is best appreciated in the light of Zen traditions that date back to the 12th century.

The history of Zen Buddhism in Japan began with the Kamakura period (1185-1333). At that time, Zen Buddhism was especially favored by the military caste, because Zen doctrines advocated simplicity and self reliance and insisted on the individual's own attempt at self-realization. It was in the early Zen monastaries that rock-and-sand gardens, the art of flower arrangement (ichibana), the tea ceremony and finger painting were first perfected. Zen masters were also highly proficient in archery and sword fighting.

A low period for Zen Buddhism came with the rise of Confucianism (1600-1868) and again during the Meiji area (1868-1912), when the return to Shintoism and Imperial rule were favored. Zen monasteries were destroyed, temples closed and thousands of monks and nuns forbidden to teach or practice.

This was a very crucial turning point, as Zen Buddhism is a monastic religion, based entirely on teacher-disciple, one-on-one instruction. Its aim is to help the disciples break the confines of their minds and to awaken them through meditation to their own internal Buddhas. Zen is not a religion based on doctrinaire principles or the worship of idols, but a philosophy and practice that offers its disciples enlightenment in this lifetime.

At the Japan Society galleries is a selection of calligraphy, hanging scrolls, painted fans and ceramics by 14 artists (one a of them a nun). Seven paneled rooms are covered with approximately 70 objects. Wall panels serve as perfect guides to the lives and works of the Zen masters, who, though largely untrained artists, brought Zen Buddhism back from the abyss.

These include Toju Zenchu (1839-1925), known as Nantenbo, who painted an enso -- a Zen circle that symbolizes life in a perfected state. The haiku inscribed within the circle of this one reads, "Born within the circle of life (enso) the human heart must also become round and complete (an enso)."

Nantendo's follower, Kanshu Sojun (1895-1954), known as Deiryu, painted the image of supplicant monks, coming and going, on a pair of scrolls. Begging was part of Zen Buddhist monks' daily ritual. Clad in black robes and sedge hats, the monks chanted loudly, to the delight of children and adults in the vicinity of their temples and monasteries. Deiryu, a respected Zen master, often personally lead his monks in such begging rounds.

With a technique known as ippitsuga (one-stroke painting), Soham Gempo (1848-1922), also known as Shoun, depicts the first Zen patriarch and founder, the Indian monk, Bodhidharma (called Daruma). Legend has it Daruma stared at a wall for nine years in order to achieve enlightenment. Shoun depicts him in this process, seen from the back.

Ox or water buffalo herding is a traditional Zen theme, perceived as a metaphor for the achievement of enlightenment. The search for the animal symbolizes stages in the quest for enlightenment. The quest ends with the forgetting of the animal after it is caught, when the self can let go of its desires. The final phase in enlightenment is the complete detachment from the self. Mamiyu Eishu (1871-1945) depicts the fifth stage, catching the ox.

Calligraphy plays a crucial role in the work of the Zen Master, Fukushima Keido (1894-1974), who at the suggestion of Columbia University professor D. T. Suzuki visited the U.S. and helped make Zen Buddhism an important factor in American art and bohemian culture. Artists such as Robert Motherwell, Mark Tobey, Sam Francis, John Cage and Brice Marden, as well as the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, were all heavily influenced by encounters with Zen thought.

As the exhibition demonstrates, Fukushima's calligraphy is sometimes abstract, sometimes humorous, and serves as an educational tool that breaks the barrier between teacher and disciple. Often it consists of a haiku, the unrhymed, stylized Japanese poem consisting of 17 symbol sounds.

Calligraphy also was painted on objects. The exhibition includes a ceramic tea bowl and wooden stick by Shibayama Zenkei (1892-1974), a renowned intellectual whose style became very expressionistic. The stick was carried by Zen Masters during lectures and used to strike students if bad answers were given, metaphorically shattering the path that lead them there.

This first ever 20th-century Zen Art exhibition in the U.S. nicely fills the gap in American knowledge of Zen Buddhism. The works make clear that Zen continues to be a thriving, intellectual and artistic part of modern Japanese culture, not a purely historical phenomenon or a trendy philosophy adapted by new age Americans, as often believed.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.