whitehot | Summer 2007, WM Issue #4: Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan @ Japan Society
“Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan”
March 28 -- June 17, 2007
By Mark Bloch
I thought perhaps my visit to a show about Zen would transport me abruptly from my lunch hour into some sort of mystical experience.
But the four dozen paintings of Buddhist gods and saints weren’t doing it for me. Each was a beautiful image and the descriptions next to them sounded important and profound. The words I was reading covered spiritual topics and directed my attention to significant details I could plainly see when I took their advice. Yet the spiritual meanings of the writings and the portraits themselves seemed dense and hard to fathom.
Almost all of the paintings were on nearly identical Japanese scrolls that lent an air of repetition to my viewing experience. That helped. Those that weren’t, toward the end of the show, were painted on sliding door panels called fusuma that had traveled here after spending centuries in Buddhist residencies and holy places of one kind or another. Several pieces in this show of works from the 13th to the 16th centuries have rarely moved within or left Japan. One portrait was outside the country for the first time ever. Others were on loan from collections in the United States or
But where was the religious experience I craved? Instead I was discovering intellectually that there exists a Zen mythological hierarchy and much of it, despite my apparent resistance, was here in this dimly lit pantheon. OK I’ll settle for that.
First came Shakyamuni, which is another name for the Buddha himself, Siddhartha, the well-documented doughboy turned deity from the 5th century BC. Zen began in India like all the other forms of Buddhism, Zen being from the Mahayana branch.
So Shakyamuni walked down from a mountaintop 563-483 BCE in his earthly guise as an Indian prince-turned-ascetic. He saw a star unconsciously as he descended and zing! was enlightened. Three scrolls, two Japanese and one Chinese, now depicted this starting point of the
Olympus of Zen. Here was Buddha not as a holy deity but rather as a happy ragamuffin having a human experience—bent over and fragile descending a mountain. A moment of material defeat had become an epiphany leading to insight. Shakyamuni explained his awakening to listeners after his descent and until his death when generations of followers carried his word, simplified or elaborated, beyond and into the rest of
Asia . Next came 28 generations of disciples--27 from India and then the 28th: Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen, an Indian monk living in the sixth century A.D. who traveled to China. When the Chinese emperor refused to meet with him, he walked out of the court, crossed the
Yangtze River (by balancing on a single floating reed) and plopped himself down facing the wall of a cliff to meditate on what to do next-- for nine years. Looking back, what began in India as Dhyana, there in China became Chan, on the Korean peninsula Seon and finally in Japan, Zen.
A new body of ideas and practice had been spread that emphasized individual meditation over group ritual and favored master-to-disciple teaching over memorized scripture. This hand-me-down transferal of wisdom has come to be known as “transmission” and eventually it included methods for achieving satori, the sort of instant enlightenment I was seeking.
But none of this did a thing for me until I gave up on satori and went back to work. But something was eating away at me so I returned to the show later and decided to start over, sketching as my time for intellectual understanding was running out. The exhibition was about to close for the day and so I stood in front of a portrait called The Shrimp Eater and began to mimic the artist's brush strokes with my ballpoint pen.
As I randomly copied the simple lines again and again I began to feel transported. Most of the art in this show had been created during the Chinese Song dynasty, 960-1279 A.D., a time for great social organization in China, when the first paper money was created and women began to become educated, write poetry, even contribute to military strategy. The portraits and landscapes that emerged from this period were sophisticated. These portraits had become the direct model for early Japanese Zen painting.
There were no Beat action paintings reminiscent of On The Road. No abstracts. No tea ceremonies. No rock gardens or even haiku. This was painting at the service of storytelling. So I focused in on the concession that was my renderings of the Shrimp Eater when I heard a muffled explosion of activity enter the gallery. It was an approaching tour group. I winced and hunkered down for what remained of my drawing experience. Closing time approached. The 5 minutes I thought I had left unfolded quickly as the roar of the group gave way to a single voice- an older Asian man in a tie speaking about the exhibit. His explanations permeated my being. I must have looked disoriented because a guard told me the gallery would be open late that night for this special tour. All my impatience dissipated and I kept at the drawing, transformed while I listened.
The voice explained something I had noticed but not consciously. Many of the painted brush strokes were very faint but the mouths and the eyes would be rendered in dark black. This was a signature technique the painters of the Song era employed, leaving the viewer wanting more than those faint lines some 500 to 700 years ago.
It turns out that the speaker was Professor Yoshiaki Shimizu, the mentor of the show's two curators Gregory Levine of UC Berkeley, and Yukio Lippit of Harvard. His words, which I was uniquely positioned to overhear, brought the show to life. The story of Zen unfolded.
After the 28th Patriarch came Huike Shenguang, who tried to get the attention of Bodhidharma by slicing off his own arm in the snow. The violent act and its results were not visible in the 13th-century Chinese painting in the corner.
Shimizu spoke about it to his silent tour group while I stared at the Shrimp Eater drawing, pretending I wasn't listening. Meanwhile Huike, his arms neither visible nor invisible, sat beside Bodhidharma who kept staring at his wall.
Remember Bodhidharma floating on a reed across the
Yangtze River ? He was described by
Shimizu as the first surfer. The one-armed Huike, the Shrimp Eater and others were described as Sansheng or “scattered saints” who are unique to Zen. They are holy rule breakers. The Shrimp Eater- a monk named in Chinese Xianzi (meaning “clam”) breaks the Buddhist directive as he takes a life. Two paintings of his appetite for joyfully eating shellfish have made him a standout among the many mischief-makers that surrounded me.
There were other wacky saints. Niaoke, which means, “bird nest,” lived in a nest up in a tree to avoid the world. Luohan were legendary figures that were to Shakyamuni what the Apostles were to Christ.
Shimizu described them as precursors to Superman because they could fly even with rocks on their back.
Then there were the widely revered Bodhisattvas who postpone their own awakening to help others achieve Buddhahood. Tenjin, a bodhisattva dressed as a Taoist priest, personified Zen’s intercultural recipe.
But my favorite saint of all was Budai, the giggling, vagabond monk whose name means “cloth bag.” This roving priest of the street with a cloth sack and a wooden pole moved “through sleazy streets and bustling market" as the wall text said, passing "indifferently" the people that crossed the street to stay out of his way. He was baby-faced and pot-bellied, an incomprehensible outcast but also a possible Maitreya: the celebrated Buddha of the Future. Most interestingly, he picked up everything he found on the street. That's why this ancient recycler needs his bag. For the scattered saints, such paradoxes and grotesqueries were part of the charisma of being a folk deity.
I was reveling in the ancient pantheon of Zen from the masters to clownish new personages that Zen used to expand the Mahayana lineage beyond the simple reading of holy texts. The shrine-like alcoves of the Japan Society, the apparitional saints and clowns, the ethereal, faint brushwork depicting monks in dreamy states, had spoken to me without my realizing it. Copying the lines of the Shrimp Eater while listening to the Master Curator had given me the deeper understanding of Zen I was after. I was smitten by the history of medieval Chan, on its way from India to Japan. Academicism had taken the place of memorizing sutras for me-- not simply experiential and not entirely non-verbal, but nevertheless, something had passed from teacher to student and transmission was complete.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief