Zen Painting

We wake up in the morning, have our breakfast, go to work and finish the day with dinner and perhaps some amusement. We have learned the tools of how to behave, how to do the things that are valuable to others so that we can make a living. After waking up on this planet one day we are thrust forward by our bodies and their needs, our parents and their needs, and the needs of our friends and the society that we live in.

Sometimes it seems that we should take a half an hour and just sit down and figure it all out and by that, get some control and sense of place. We would of course make quiet the computer that is running in the head which is always calculating the electric bill and the late fee and whether he or she really meant what they said, or was it our bad day or maybe it was their bad day.

And what does this have to do with Zen and Painting? When things are going well, there's no particular reason to figure it out. But, everyone finds that the world is not a place that is made just for their needs and desires. For many this is the beginning of the spiritual quest. The adversities of life force us to think about ourselves in terms of a larger perspective. This is where the cosmologies of religion, magic and art enter.

In Asia, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism came together to form a philosophy and religion called Zen. In the sixth century a great Indian teacher, named Bodhidharma, traveled to China to teach what later became known in Japan as Zen Buddhism.

His teaching derived from Buddhism in India. The center of his system of enlightenment was utterly simple, meditate. In meditation the mind will free itself from the attachments to hope and fears and calculation and discover the nature of mind itself. One metaphor asks, "How can one clean the inside of an ink bottle?" The answer is simple, let clear and clean water flow constantly into it -and little by little it will become crystal clear. The water in this example is the purity of consciousness undistracted by sequential calculation or the fantasies of how we are surviving.

In less poetic form the intent of this metaphor is trying to tell us that, "The necessities of living, have obscured the intimacy of our harmonious and joyous relation to everything around us." The Buddha originally taught that everyone will eventually achieve perfection. This may take many lives and great struggles but the Zen school believes that enlightenment can come suddenly and completely. The seeker finds a teacher that has already achieved enlightenment and intensely follows his direction and he too will know this reality.

There is a phrase in speaking of spiritual reality called, "one with the universe". We may have a sense of what this might mean but for those of us that have not experienced this state it remains an idea that can be talked about only as a concept. Zen can be analyzed, it can be described, it can be sensed but it is a vague image with no substance until it is experienced. How do we know that it really exists? Aside from the testimony of many who seem to know, there are the paintings of the Zen masters.

The teachers of Zen sometimes also had the gifts of calligraphy and painting. In those paintings the force of their enlightenment seems to emanate. The majority of Zen paintings are in sumi-e (black ink on paper). The lines are very spare. The aim of these paintings is to suggest rather than to describe. But the Zen masters' intentions were not to amplify mystery but to reveal it. Zen ecstasy is that realization - I am alive and free of all bonds! Therefore there is great good humor in the paintings and stories of Zen.

This painting is called an "Enso". When practicing Zen calligraphy, it is recommended that during each session an "enso" be created. Each time it will be different and will reflect the state of mind behind the brush. It is the "circle of infinity, symbol of simplicity with profundity, emptiness with fullness, the visible and the invisible." This is part of the explanation of the meaning of this enigmatic single stroke as interpreted by Prof. John Stevens. This painting is by Inaba Shinden (1906-1986), Abbot of Kokutai-ji

The inscription is by Ikkyu and is a famous poem.It reads: "This simple rough skull, what a treasure! There is nothing more congratulatory than this." In Buddhism and Zen, death is a passage on to a cycle of lives that will evolve into a perfect state of being. That is Buddha nature or nirvana, the end of the separation from the entirety of the universe. A person who has passed on is just one who has passed on and is to be congratulated much as one would say, "Bon Voyage". This painting is by a great teacher named, Yamaoka Tesshu(1836-88)

This is Daruma (Japanese name for Bodhidarma) by Matsubara Banryu (1848 - 1935). For a Zen master he started painting only in his eighties, yet there is force and energy in his strokes. The heavy dark lines under the face represent Daruma's robe and the Indian nose tells us of his origin and the great wide open eyes allude to the lesson of severity that he taught. He cut off his eyelids during a nine-year meditation in front of a cave wall when he was about to fall asleep. This story is nothing more than trying to show the intensity and devotion to the single goal of enlightenment.

Many times Japanese and Chinese calligraphy seem impenetrable for Westerners. And many times they are. They are forms that have meaning in a culture that is rich in thousands of years of experience. Yet, anyone can see that this calligraphy in three characters by Chuho is forceful without reservation. It is the personality of a person who has something important to say. It is the admonition that we all need regularly, "Look at Yourself".