What is Zen ? Part II
Part II : Zazen and Zen arts
In the previous post, we discussed how Zen was born in India/China as one of the many schools of the Mahayana Buddhism, and how it was brought to Japan to become an influential force during the drastic transition period of the Middle Ages. The Rinza-shu, one of the major Zen schools, became the religion of the emerging samurai chiefs, helping them transform from the groups of regional, barbarian warriors to national leaders capable of overwhelming/ousting the aristocrats from power, who took pride in leading social/intellectual/cultural endeavors. We now move on to the tenets and aesthetics of Zen.
Due to the philosophical nature of Buddhism, many important scriptures and textbooks had been written by the time Zen emerged. It involved a lot of work to study them. Questioning such a trend, Zen attempted to emphasize that our body has to be the final gateway to reach religious truth, not the study of textbooks. If you had to internalize Buddha’s teachings thoroughly, they had to be absorbed directly through your body. Zen denied the uncertainty of “studying” something external to yourself. Such a belief is called “不立文字 (furyumonji),” and Zen did not choose a central scripture or text, as other schools did. Instead it prioritized zazen – sitting meditation.
The two major Zen schools that thrived in Japan, the 臨済宗 (Rinzai-shu), which became the religion of military leaders, and the 曹洞宗 (Soto-shu) that found its core audience among peasants, serfs and low-ranking local samurai, both abide by 不立文字 (furyumonji) and prioritize 座禅 (zazen) – sitting meditation as an ultimate vehicle to reach religious enlightenment and eternal peace of mind. But they take slightly different approaches: Soto-shu focuses solely on zazen, while Rinzai-shu also leverages 公案問答 (koan mondo, the Zen Q&A sessions) along with meditation. Sooto-shu’s zazen philosophy is called “只管打坐 (shikan taza).” It means ‘you do zazen in order to do zazen.’” Against our general perception, the purpose of zazen is not to improve or achieve something. You shouldn’t even hope to reach the stage of mindfulness, although it sounds so legitimate. Instead, Zen asks you to leave all of your thoughts and ambitions behind and vacate your body and mind, consistent with the teaching of “空 (kuu).”
Soto-shu believes that zazen is a religious pursuit in itself. You are not supposed to add any meaning or value to it, because such meaning is relative, temporary and could turn out to be wrong tomorrow. As contradictory as it may sound, the objective of zazen is not to achieve anything. You have to overcome the urge to try to get something valuable out of it.
In essence, Zazen is a physical attempt to become zero from head to toe. Probably the most inspiring part of zazen, or Buddhism in general, is the realization that zero is actually the most abundant thing in our world. We generally think that we would be in misery if we didn’t have things. But it is because we almost automatically calculate that thing = value, and nothing = no value. What you find from zazen is that we could flip the coin and recognize that nothing = potential, and something = limitation.
Naturally, such a realization was better expressed using non-verbal forms. When you saw that something was empty, but if you felt the potential actually filling the voids, the message was conveyed without relying on any words that could be interpreted in a wrong, or diluted way. That was the reason why so many Zen priests became extraordinary artists and founders of many traditional aspects of Japanese culture. Many of them created what people today consider Japanese aesthetics – simple, minimal, empty yet powerful. Of course accomplished artists emerged from other Buddhist schools, but the Rinzai priests cut themselves for a couple of important reasons:
- Zen’s approach to elevate Buddha’s teaching to a non-verbal, metaphysical level was a natural fit for abstract, minimal arts.
- Rinzai priests were supported by the military leaders and later by the aristocrats, who financially backed their endeavors in architecture, arts and design.
- Rinzai priests were the main international diplomats who had close ties with China. They brought Chinese arts to Japan and advanced them in a unique way.
- As Zen was an emerging school of Buddhism, Zen priests were rather free from the convention of the existing Buddhism and social norms. They played the role of innovators and trailblazers.
There are several forms of arts that were strongly influenced by Zen, and became the foundation of what we see as Japanese aesthetics today such as wabi-sabi, ma, yohaku or the aesthetics of subtraction.
墨蹟 (Bokuseki, ink writings by the Zen priests)
Zen priests left a plethora of writings in ink as part of the religious activities. But they became popular “artworks” because the tea ceremony, which became popular after the 15th century, enthusiastically displayed their pieces in the tokono-ma of the tea room. Chinese Zen priests’ works were highly sought after, but Japanese priests also left many masterpieces blending Chinese style and their own. It is worth nothing that because of the nature of the writing – they wrote to record something, not so much as artistic endeavors – Zen priests were were free from aesthetic styles or techniques and found new potential in calligraphy.
水墨画 (Suibokuga, Ink paintings)
Along with bokseki, ink painting originated in China and was brought to Japan by Zen priests. It uses ink as a medium almost exclusively, leveraging its gradations, smears, blurs and scratches as crucial aesthetic effects. Ink painting was first used for landscape paintings, but Zen priests also applied it for portraits or to express koan (Zen questions or statements).
雪舟 (Sesshu) 1420 – 1506
Sesshu is the Zen priest/painter and the father of Japanese ink paintings. He joined the Zen temple when he was ten, because it was the go-to place if you wanted to become an artist during that time. His style is characterized by the bold compositions, effective use of emphasized outlines and thin, frail lines that express the texture of the substances. He was admired by the artists who belonged to the Kano school that dominated the Japanese paintings until the 18th century.
The traditional Japanese garden design centered on large ponds leveraging humid, water-rich climate. However, many Zen temples were built in remote areas such as in the middle of the mountains to allow priests to pursue strict religious training. When they saw dead plants in the gardens because of poor access to water, they accepted it as an alternative way to appreciate nature. Kare-sansui (the Zen rock garden) was thus born, as the priests started designing their gardens without relying on stable supply of water.
Garden design made a great leap forward in the Middle Ages thanks to Muso Soseki, one of the most prominent Rinzai priests and ishi-date sou (garden designer priest) who elevated Japanese gardens to a metaphysical, philosophical and abstract level. Read more about kare-sansui and Muso Soseki.
The 茶道 (sado), or 茶の湯 (cha no yu) is Japanese tea ceremony that can be summarized as the “art of behavior.” Born as a counter movement to luxurious tea parties that were popular among social elites in the 15th century, tea ceremony, heavily influenced by the Zen philosophy, leveraged notions such as simple, minimal, old and rustic in order to discover true beauty in everyday life.
村田珠光 (Juko Murata) is considered to be the father of “wabi-cha,” which was later cemented by 千利休 (Sen no Rikyu, 1522-1598). His life is not well known, but it is widely believed that he became a Rinzai priest after he studied Zen under Ikkyu Sojun (see below) at the Daitoku-ji temple (also see below). Strongly influenced by Zen, Juko attempted to shift the focus of the tea ceremony from showing off extravagant imported Chinese artworks to appreciating simple, decent, subtle and rustic aspects of everyday life. He frequently used domestically produced simple and plain tools, and developed the 四畳半 (4 1/2 tatami mattress, about 7.5 square meters) tea room style that later become the standard. His aesthetics were passed on to Takeno Joo, and then on to Sen no Rikyu. As described by “茶禅一味 (chazen ichimi – tea ceremony and Zen share the same essence),” tea ceremony became refined as an art of behavior that denied anything extra or excessive.
Flower arrangement also made a big stride in the Middle Ages during which time the foundation of “ikebana” was established.
池坊専慶 (Ikenobo Senkei)
The record shows that Ikenobo Senkei, a Tendai-shu priest at Rokkaku-do in Kyoto delivered a remarkable flower arrangement for a military leader in 1462, which became a sensation in Kyoto. This is believed to be the oldest recorded “ikebana,” the flower arrangement elevated to a form of art. Although Senkei was not a Zen priest, ikebana continued evolving to eventually represent the “aesthetics of subtraction” as it became reduced to the essential elements to express the beauty of nature. Read more about ikebana.
Zen priests as vagabonds
There had always been some Buddhism practitioners who lived away from society and constantly traveled. They were free-spirited vagabonds who preferred nature and its raw beauty to the world of humans who always had to compete and fight with each other. They were often the trailblazers of counter-culture.
一休宗純 (Ikkyu Sojun)
Ikkyu was a rebellious Rinzai Zen priest who excelled in poetry. He was never afraid of breaking social/religious norms and rules. Because of his free-spirited creative energy, many people and artists followed him, including people who were engaged in tea ceremony and Nou theater. He was the major engine of Wabi-sabi culture.
In order to institutionalize the Rinzai-shu as part of the social/political hierarchy, the Muromachi dynasty introduced 五山十刹 (Gozan Jissetsu) system, copying the Chinese one. It determined the five most important temples and the ten others that followed, assigning each temple an explicit ranking. They still operate as religious centers and historic sites. Many of them possess national treasure in terms of artifacts and buildings. You may want to check them if you are traveling to Kyoto. Below are the five mountains.
Below are some prestigious Zen temples in Kyoto including the Five Mountains that retain remarkable buildings, artifacts and gardens.
Tofuku-ji is one of Kyoto’s Five Mountains. Established in 1236, it still maintains the atmosphere of the Middle Ages. It is also famous for its “modern” kare-sansui gardens renovated by Mirei Shigemori in 1938.
Myoshin-ji was founded in 1342 and leads the largest sub-school of the Rinzai-shu. Priests at the Myoshin-ji maintained strict religious life and stayed away from the politics. It has many sub-temples and off-site facilities with remarkable national-treasures, including the bokuseki (ink writings) by 宗峰妙超 (Shuho Myocho).
Daitoku-ji is one of the major Rinzai-shu temples built in 1325. Involved in a political turf war, it was ranked very high in the early 14th century, but was later removed from the Five Mountains, which made them opt out of the system eventually. It has many historic buildings and acclaimed kare-sansui gardens.
Ryoan-ji was established in 1450 and belongs to Myoshin-ji sub-school (see above). It has the most famous 石庭 (sekitei), the kare-sansui garden, which is designed using only 15 rocks. It is unknown who created it and what the theme was. People still speculate every aspect of this minimalist yet inspiring garden.
Saiho-ji was originally established in 729, but was almost abandoned by the Middle Ages. Muso Soseki (see above) was invited to re-establish it as a Rinzai temple. As Soseki did so, he created a beautiful garden. Read more about the Saiho-ji garden.
Priests in general played a unique role in the Middle Age Japan, sometimes as intellectuals, sometime as outsiders who could break social barriers, sometimes as individuals with special status who could freely access people from various social status from high to low, and sometimes as someone who existed in between this world and another world.
As Zen (Rinzai) priests made significant contributions to advance traditional arts and culture for a variety of reasons, 時宗 (Ji-shu) priests (a sub-school of Jodo-shu) also played a unique role in the emergence of new aesthetics during the 14th ~ 16th centuries. As described in the previous article, Ji-shu embraced singing, dancing and traveling as part of its nembutsu chanting practice to open its doors to poor, disadvantaged people who couldn’t read scriptures. As a result, many “entertainers” – traveling singers, dancers, theater companies joined Ji-shu. They often belonged to the groups discriminated against in society.
Ji-shu priests often accompanied samurai warriors to battlefields to take care of those who lost their lives in the fight. As they established a close relationship with the military, they naturally started offering them entertainment services, because some Ji-shu members were the entertainers. Eventually, some of them became acclaimed artists despite their low social status, performing before very high ranking military leaders/aristocrats.
As they typically used a name that had “阿弥 (ami)” at its end, those artists/entertainers were called 阿弥衆 (ami-shu) or 同朋衆 (doho-shu). Japanese graphic designer Kenya Hara calls ami-shu Japan’s first professional group of designers and entertainers.
観阿弥 (Kan-ami), 世阿弥 (Ze-ami)
Nou originated in “猿楽 (sarugaku),” dance companies traditionally ran by socially discriminated people. But during the 14th century, genius father-son dancers 観阿弥 (Kan-ami) and “世阿弥 (Ze-ami) elevated it to Nou theater. It is still played unchanged today.
能阿弥 (Nou-ami) was a multi-talented artist who excelled in ink paintings, the tea ceremony and poetry. He also had very aesthetic eyes and served as an appraiser of artworks for the social elites. He is probably one of the first Japanese interior designers and artists who could make a living simply by having incomparable style and talent, rather like Jean Cocteau.