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Ito Jakuchu


by Donald Kuspit
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Following the procedure of the physician of his day inspecting a patient, the Buddha makes four statements concerning the case of man. These are the so-called “Four Noble Truths” which constitute the heart and kernel of his doctrine. The first, All life is sorrowful, announces that we members of the human race are spiritually unhealthy, the symptom being that we carry on our shoulders a burden of sorrow; the disease is endemic. No discussion of any question of guilt goes with this matter-of-fact diagnosis; for the Buddha indulged in no metaphysical or mythological dissertations. He inquired into the cause on the practical, psychological level, however, hence we have, as the second of the “Four Noble Truths,” The cause of suffering is ignorant craving.

In other words, the ills of the individual cannot be understood in terms of the individual’s mistakes; they are rooted in our human way of life, and the whole content of this life is a pathological blend of unfulfilled cravings, vexing longings, fears, regrets, and pains. Such a state of suffering is something from which it would be only sensible to be healed.

This radical statement about the problems that most of us take for granted as the natural concomitants of existence, and decide simply to endure, is balanced in the doctrine of the Buddha by the third and fourth of the “Four Noble Truths.” Having diagnosed the illness and determined its cause, the physician inquires whether the disease can be cured. The Buddhist prognostication is that a cure is indeed possible; hence we hear: The suppression of suffering can be achieved, and the last of the Four Truths prescribes the way. The way is the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Endeavor, Right Mindfulness, and Right Contemplation.

-- Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India(1)

It will not, then, surprise us to find that it is not only in connection with natural objects (such as the dewdrop) or events (such as death) but also in connection with works of art, and in fact whenever or wherever perception (aesthesis) leads to a serious experience, that we are really shaken.  

-- Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Samvega: Aesthetic Shock”(2)

Ito Jakuchu’s Colorful Realm of Living Beings, 30 scroll paintings created over a ten year period (ca. 1757-66), were donated, a year before they were finished, to the Shokokuji Zen monastery in Kyoto, along with his Sakyamuni Triptych, painted during the same period. Gautama Sakyamuni was the historically first “Buddha,” an epithet meaning “Awakened One.” He is pictured in the center of the triptych, seated on a brightly colored octagonal lotus dais -- elevated on a throne, as it were, and flanked by Ananda and Mahakasyapa, two of his early disciples. Like the portraits of secular donors in medieval altarpieces, they are much smaller than the grand sacred figure, and shown in devotional poses.

On separate scrolls, and like the Buddha seated on elaborate thrones, and his same size, are, on his right, the Bodhisattva Manjusri, and, on his left, the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Like the saints standing with Christ in Christian altarpieces, they are not simply his followers, but identify with him -- the imitatio Buddha shown in Jakuchu’s scrolls has its parallel in the imitatio Christi in Christian altarpieces. And just as the apostles who spread the word of Christ in their testaments had an animal associated with them, so the two Bodhisattvas have animals associated with them, a Chinese lion in the case of Manjusri, a white elephant in the case of Samantabhadra. In both cases the symbolic animals are led by attendants, suggesting that they have been tamed -- that the saintly Bodhisattva has tamed his animal instincts. He has risen above (“sublimated”) them, as his elevated (“sublime”) position, and composure -- his hermetic serenity and self-containment render him impenetrable, enigmatic -- suggest.

None of the three figures cracks a smile. Their fixed, mask-like, expressionless faces seem to hide a secret, some special knowledge they don’t want to give away even as their sublimity suggests it. Their lips are tightly closed, suggesting that they have something ineffable to say. You can sense their profundity when you humble yourself before them, feel it in the luminous colors that give them uncanny presence. Their purity of spirit and body is signaled by the startling whiteness of the elephant and of the cloth tied in a knot that each holds in one hand. It secures their robe, but it also suggests they are a kind of Gordian knot. The other hand is raised in blessing -- or like a knife that can swiftly cut the knot, as their thin, elongated, fingers, each with long nails, sharp as a blade, suggest.

Each is a cosmic sun, as the aura of concentric circles that forms a halo around their heads suggest. One feels the light and warmth of the sun, without necessarily understanding how it got to be what it is, and takes it for granted, even as one unconsciously knows that one cannot live without it. You may worship these human-looking suns with blind faith, revering their purity and sublimity, but however much you do, you can never seriously understand their existence -- unless, like them, you heed the Four Noble Truths they teach and follow them on the Noble Eightfold Path. You feel their nobility when you intensely gaze at them with all your being, feel for a moment as seriously glorious as they are -- but you will never be like them unless you achieve Buddhahood, as they have.

It is clear that the Sakyamuni Triptych has a great deal to do with Buddhism, but what do Jakuchu’s exquisitely beautiful and detailed paintings of birds, flowers, butterflies, frogs, trees, water, fish, seashells, reeds, etc. -- nature in all its immediate glory and infinite variety, non-human nature seen up close to the extent of seeming to impinge on our existence, even overwhelm and trivialize human nature, as though suggesting that self-centered human beings are beside the cosmic point of nature -- have to do with it? Even the self-centered figures in the Sakyamuni Triptych, however ostensibly selfless, as their unmoving demeanor and bodies suggest, seem peculiarly secondary to the naturally animated life rendered with such intimate care in Jakuchu’s 30 scrolls. What’s one Buddha to the many flora and fauna of nature? The Buddha seems limited -- just another human being, who has become sublime by deliberate, great, “unnatural” mental effort -- compared to the illimitable forms of life sublime by nature. Born sublime or naturally sublime, they don’t have to make any effort to become sublime. They don’t have to meditate -- turn inward, become introverted -- to become sublime. Their sublimity is turned inside out, as it were: it is evident in their appearance, the “revelation” of their outside. The more decoratively extroverted they appear to be by reason of their vivid colors, the more inherently sublime they are experienced to be, for their colors are inherent to their being.

They don’t need any halo to announce their sublimity; the least detail of nature is auratic, as the melting white snow and white feathers on the wild goose in Jakuchu’s Wild Goose and Reeds make clear. Each and every insect, frog, and leaf in Pond and Insects resonates with aura, with no loss of substance. They are embodied aura, all the more so because their bodies are rendered with an exquisite precision that is an act of worship. Aura doesn’t supernaturalize being in Jukuchu’s pictures, but absolutizes its naturalness. Jakuchu’s blossoms, flowers, trees, small birds, cranes, and perhaps most astonishing of all his chickens and roosters -- in one work they’re all white, like the cockatoos in another work, and the phoenix in another -- are sharply defined because they are all aura. Aura is not added to Jukuchu’s flora and fauna, as it is to the figures in many religious paintings -- the halos around the figures in the Sakyamuni Triptych seem more nominal than necessary, demanded by convention rather than essential to the figures -- announcing their spiritual character, but is immanent in Jukuchu’s nature. Aura is not a gift from above, a blessing bestowed by some god, an emanation from some higher power imbuing lower beings with special significance, but completely natural. No transcendental gods bestowed the halos that crown the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. They made their spiritual crowns by themselves.  

Nothing is blurred in Jakuchu’s nature, whatever the season -- not even the melting snow in Mandarin Ducks and Snow and Golden Pheasants in Snow, where winter and summer seem to be happening at the same time, as the flowers suggest. Even the cosmic light brought down to earth in the auratic bodies of his flora and fauna is crystal clear. It breathes life into his dead Shells, but then their shape and coloration make them seem uncannily alive. The clue to Jakuchu’s art is the respectful attention he brings to every detail of his naturally given subject matter. It conveys his deep devotion to nature, and the sophisticated intimacy he has with it: he immerses himself in it, indicating that it speaks to and symbolizes his feelings, but he never loses himself in it, for he describes its facts with a Bodhisattva’s detachment. In fact, they are as colorful as the Bodhisattvas in the Sakyamuni Triptych. Jakuchu is fully conscious of nature -- enlightened about it, “awakened” by it and in relation to it -- however much, by reason of the fact that he is a natural being, part of it, as much a creature of nature as any he depicts: each is in effect a symbolic self-representation, and each has something of his own nature even as he has something of their nature. They are the many natural forms through which his spirit has transmigrated, as the Buddhists think.    

The conspicuously sacred figures in the triptych and the more subtle sacred flora and fauna in the 30 scrolls have a relationship that runs deeper than the sacredness they share. Gautama Sakyamuni was a prince who left his father’s palace to practice yoga austerities for many years in search of “absolute Enlightenment.” Without the story of how he became absolutely enlightened it is impossible to comprehend the paradoxical connection between Jukuchu’s representation of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas in all their universal glory and his representation of the flora and fauna of nature in all their particular glory. The story is just as paradoxical.

Sitting then beneath the Bo Tree, he was approached and tempted by the god Kama-Mara (“Desire and Death”), the master magician of the world illusion. Having overcome the tempter by remaining immovable in introversion, the prince experienced the Great Awakening, since which time he has been known as the “Awakened One,” the Buddha. Absorbed in the vast experience, he remained beneath the Bo Tree, unmoved, for seven days and seven nights, “experiencing the bliss of the Awakening,” then arose, as though to depart from that place, but could not depart. . . . He moved from tree to tree in this way for seven weeks, and during the fifth was protected by the hood of the serpent-king, Mucalinda. Following the blessed period of forty-nine days, his glorious glance opened again to the world. Then he understood that what he had experienced was beyond speech; all endeavor to talk about it would be vain. He determined, consequently, not to attempt to make it known.                        

But Brahma, the Universal Lord of the fleeting processes of life, in his eternal abode at the summit of the egg-shaped cosmos, looking down on the Awakened One, realized that the decision had been made to withhold the teaching. Brahma, himself a creature, indeed the highest of all creatures, was perturbed to know that the sublime knowledge (knowledge unknown to Brahma) was not to be revealed. He descended from the zenith and with prayer implored the Buddha to become the teacher of mankind, the teacher of the gods, the teacher of the created world. All were enwrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking life of created beings. Brahma implored that the truly Awake should open his path to all. For there might be some, the god urged, some happy few among these deluded beings, whose eyes would not be blinded by the dust of passion, and these would understand. As lotus flowers arising from the dark waters of a lake are to be found in various stages of maturity -- some with buds still deep under water, some nearing the surface, some already open, prepared to drink the rays of the sun -- just so there might be among mankind and the gods a few prepared to hear.

The Buddha was moved, thus, to teach the path.(3)

He taught it out of compassion, and so do the Bodhisattvas who follow in his path, with an important difference: “Bodhisattvas postpone their own enlightenment to help believers achieve salvation,” which is why “they are customarily depicted with a more worldly appearance, such as elaborate clothing and jewelry,” in contrast to the already enlightened Buddha, dressed simply in a luminous red robe, symbolizing salvation, that is, awakening.(4) It is as though the intense red of the robe symbolizes the fire of desire consuming itself as well as the desire that informs and fuels the Buddha’s introversion -- even as the eye-awakening red awakens the viewer from his sleep. The story helps us understand why the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra holds an open lotus flower in his right hand, and why both Bodhisattvas and the Buddha sit on lotus thrones.

The 30 scrolls picture “the dream known as the waking life of created beings.” A famous Buddhist text of meditation reads: “Just as, in the vast ethereal sphere, stars and darkness, light and mirage, dew, foam, lightning and clouds emerge, become visible and vanish again, like the features of a dream -- so everything endowed with an individual shape is to be regarded.”(5) The idea that individual things, however ostensibly different, are alike in that they are all dream phenomena or illusions, is “illustrated” in Jakuchu’s Peonies and Butterflies. “The peony was likened to feminine beauty and prosperity,” and thus “enjoyed great popularity as an auspicious painting subject,” Lippit tells us.(6) The butterfly was also an “auspicious symbol,” she notes -- neglecting to note that a butterfly approaching and landing on a flower, which seems to be waiting for it, for the flower blossoms at its sight (its petals are spread wide open as though to receive it) -- is a titillating sexual event. It is worth noting that the one butterfly that alights on a peony is almost completely black, white the peony is pink and white. Both are equally delicate, but the peony’s hues are more inviting, not to say seductive, as flowers always are. The fish approaching the blossoming pink and white flower in Lotus Pond and Fish makes the same sexual point. (Sex takes place in the ocean as well as the air -- it’s everywhere, that is, universal and “natural.”)

But the point Lippit wants to make is that the popularity of the butterfly is also “attributable to its appearance in one of the most famous parables in early Chinese thought: Zhuangzi’s dream of a butterfly. Zhuangzi dreams that he is a carefree yellow butterfly flitting about. Upon awakening, however, he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.” It clearly doesn’t matter whether one is a butterfly or a human being, feels carefree or burdened by cares. They’re interchangeable, and, more to the Buddhist point, they’re both illusions -- dreams. The dream is the only reality, as it were, and reality is only a dream: to know this is to be awakened to the absolute truth.  

Flowers are highly sexed beings, as the fact that they contain both the male and female generative organs -- pistil and stamen, with the pollen as seed, and an ovary in the receptacle -- suggesting the underlying sexual connotation of Jukuchu’s representations of nature, that is, his recognition that it is in constant sexual activity, and that the sexual act is sacred by reason of its generative or creative function. The sexual act is encapsulated in Jukuchu’s sexy flowers, each announcing that the sexual act is a creative act -- and vice versa. Jukuchu is inspired by nature, and to be inspired by something is to be sexually excited and drawn to it: inspiration, that is, the urge to be creative or generative, is always intensely libidinous and relational, however unconsciously. His flora and fauna are libidinously alive, making them seem radiantly beautiful, and with that irresistible and attractive. The red and blue hearts that adorn the tails of Jukuchu’s white phoenix, the white lovebirds in Peach Blossoms and Small Birds, the white loving cuckoo couple, the white crowing rooster and submissive white hen in Old Pine Tree, White Rooster, and Hen, even the male genitals that form the red face of the one chicken staring at us (rather than looking to the side and shown in profile) in Chickens, make the sexual meaning of Jukuchu’s nature clear.

There is no sign of death in Jukuchu’s pictures. Even his melting snow is libidinously fluid; the droplets drip like sperm. This is no doubt a farfetched, easy association, but an emotionally convincing one, considering that the liquefying snow seems like a distorted version of the flowing petals. The bizarre amorphous form of the large patches of melting snow, its whiteness sullied by gray yet still pure and visible -- shining through the gloom, as it were, its brightness reinforced by the radiant green and earth brown, both triumphantly counteracting the gray -- and the contained forms of the small peonies in Golden Pheasants in Snow conveys their oddly “dialectical” relationship. Jukuchu’s profound attention to the explicitly sexual parts of the flower -- stigma, anther, and filament -- also suggests the broader sexual import of his works. The change of seasons suggested by the juxtaposition of melting snow and blossoming flowers also suggests a sexual convergence of opposites. Again and again Jukuchu renders fascinated homage to the sexual and generative power of nature. One might say that his sexual intercourse with it is responsible for the enduring vitality of his art. And “the great delight” it continues to afford, “the Great Delight,” as Mahayana Buddhism says, “being the divine male and female in embrace.”(7) In nature it is a “ritual sexual act” involving “the cosmogonic manifestation of compassion.”(8) Again and again Jukuchu shows that act as it is occurring, seemingly spontaneously yet inevitably, confirming that it is the ultimate “mystery,” as Zimmer calls it.

Art attunes to this ultimate mystery, as it were: without attunement there is no serious experience, and without serious experience there is no serious consciousness, and without serious consciousness -- “concentrated meditation on the appearance and disappearance of mental representations. . . the ever-renewed cosmogony of the coming into existence of the universe and its disappearance again” (the so-called Law of the Wheel)(9) -- there is no possibility of “Absolute Enlightenment,” of becoming an “Awakened One,” that is, a Buddha. According to Buddhist theory, there are two ways in which art can help and prepare one to be awakened. It can give one an “esthetic shock,” leading to “serious experience.” The esthetic shock puts one in a mental state in which one no longer suffers from “ignorant craving,” however short-lived, even momentary the state -- and shock. It is not so much a state of (Kantian) disinterest as a state of disbelief in reality, or rather the realization that it is an illusion or dream, to recall Zuangzhi’s “awakening” experience. The sense of uncertainty or confusion about whether one is real or some other being’s dream is esthetically shocking. Secondly, if the creation of a work of art “is an act of the same order as the creation of the world: ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione,” then the serious experience of the work of art is of the same creative order as the creation of the world as well as of the work of art. As such, the serious experience -- creative apperception -- of the work of art must, like it, “proceed from a correct understanding of the doctrine of Sunyata,” the enlightened source of “the entire iconography” of Buddhist art, as Zimmer notes, quoting a Buddhist scholar.

“From right perception of sunyata (“the void”) comes bija (“the [creative] seed). From bija the conception of an icon is developed, and from that conception is derived the external representation of the icon,” that is, the work of art. This is a quotation from “The Exposition of the Doctrine of the Great Delight” by a 12th-century Bengali Buddhist. Zimmer notes that “icon” means “mental representation.” It “concretizes externally, and from it springs all that is conditioned-in-existence.”(10) The artist must start from the right perception of the void, which means he must start with the recognition that everything that exists is an illusion, a dream -- that he is a dreamer who is part of the dream. His creativity springs from this right perception of the void. His mental representations -- conceptions of things conditioned-in-existence -- concretize in the physical representations that are works of art, although the Buddhists seem to think that the mental representations or conceptions are the first works of art, ever-changing works of art as their appearance and disappearance suggests. Both the mental and physical representations of things conditioned-in-existence are illusions. Jukuchu’s painted scrolls are sacred icons that create the illusion that each and every thing created and conditioned by nature is sacred. Jukuchu’s nature as a cosmic whole is the grandest of illusions. His esthetic representations of it are almost as grandly illusionistic -- esthetically grand, for they give it hallucinatory presence, capturing its illusionistic quality, suggesting that it is too good to be true.

The ultimate esthetic shock is beauty, the artist’s ability to make the illusion seem beautiful, to make us experience reality as beautiful illusion, and illusion as shockingly real. Jukuchu doesn’t simply create an illusion of reality, but a beautiful illusion. It is what makes him a great master, not just another illusionist tricking us into thinking that seeing is believing. It is the beauty of the artistic illusion that makes things conditioned-in-existence seem real even as it confirms their dream-like character. The illusion of beauty is the saving grace of art -- saves it from being a visual stunt, pitched to a naively trusting consciousness -- and each and every one of Jukuchu’s painted scrolls is profoundly beautiful. Beauty shocks our consciousness into wakefulness, for it seems to contain and concentrate in itself the Noble Eightfold Path -- another illusion it creates -- and liberate us from the conditions of our existence by telling us that our suffering is an illusion, like our existence. To be beautiful, as Jakuchu’s flora and fauna are, is to have Buddhahood -- to know that one is a naturally occurring illusion that exists in a cosmic void, which is what the flat, indifferent, infinite space in which Jakuchi’s finite flora and fauna appear and exist is. The contrast between that austere “yoga” space and their opulent lushness -- and that of the Bodhisattvas and their thrones -- is esthetically shocking. So is the skill with which Jukuchu crafts his images. Making them was clearly a meditative act. The esthetic shock of Jakuchu’s paintings reminds us that we also are illusions in a void, and have been dreamt by the beings that appear in them.

It seems possible to link Jukuchu’s 18th-century Japanese nature paintings to 19th-century European paintings romanticizing nature. Romanticism, Baudelaire wrote, means “intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite.”(11) Impressionism is clearly a spin-off of romanticism, involving a more developed sense of intimacy with nature, and of its “sensational” immediacy, than the “dramatized” nature in Delacroix’s paintings, perhaps most notably in such violently “romantic” works as Tiger Hunt, 1854. His wild beasts are a far cry from Jukuchu’s butterflies and birds. More directly to the point of Jukuchu’s nature paintings are Ruskin’s remarks about modern nature paintings: “But the truths of nature are one eternal change -- one infinite variety. There is no bush on the face of the globe like another bush; -- there are no two trees in the forest whose boughs bend into the same network, nor two leaves on the same tree which could not be told one from the other, nor two waves in the sea exactly alike. And of this mass of various, yet agreeing beauty, is by long attention only that the conception of the constant character -- the ideal form -- hinted at by all, yet assumed by none, is fixed upon the imagination for its standard of truth.”(12) But European paintings that “romanticize” nature, whether as ingratiatingly idyllic or in stormy action, don’t fully enlighten us about the truth of nature as Jukuchu’s paintings do, however fewer the details of nature on which they focus, not to say meditate. The European romantic nature paintings are simply not as beautiful, esthetically shocking, profoundly meaningful, and “knowledgeable.”

We can’t say that Japanese nature painting influenced European nature painting -- Constable was an influence on Delacroix, who only went as far as Morocco for “outside” influence (as did Matisse) -- but the profound influence of Japanese flat space on Western modern art has been much noted and documented. The flat, understated planes of Toulouse-Lautrec prints and the flattening, compressed space of Nabi paintings are unthinkable without it, and 20th-century so-called all-over flat field paintings seem to be its climactic statement. The encroaching, all-encompassing power of the void had caught up with Western art. Absolute art is impossible without the absolute void, but in the West absolute void doesn’t mean sublime knowledge. The sublime is now, as an American artist declared, but that only means the pseudo-sublime of pure art -- art that has eradicated all traces of nature, and with that beauty, as he said. In the West the void served to make art superficially mysterious, rather than to convey true knowledge of nature and reality, thus enlightening us about their mystery, and awakening us to our Buddhahood.     

“Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800),” Mar. 30-Apr. 29, 2012, at the National Gallery of Art, 4th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20565

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.


(1) Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (New York: Pantheon, 1951), 467-69

(2) Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Samvega: Aesthetic Shock,” Selected Papers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), I, 182

(3) Zimmer, 465-66

(4) Yukio Lippit, “Catalogue,” Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu (Washington: National Gallery of Art, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 127

(5) Quoted in Zimmer, 486

(6) Lippit, 5

(7) Zimmer, 556

(8) Ibid., 557

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid., 556

(11) Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955), 43

(12) John Ruskin, Modern Painters (Boston: Dana Estes, 1902), I, 134