Zen is a school of Buddhism which was founded by Buddha in India in as early as the 6th century BCE. After several centuries of philosophical struggle to crystallize Buddha’s teachings – which were profound enough to invite multiple interpretations – Nagarjuna (150- 250 CE) emerged and played a pivotal role to cement the core tenets of so-called Mahayana Buddhism.
Meaning “great vehicle” in Sanskrit, Mahayana believes that everyone – even people who didn’t endure hard training nor observed strict commitment – could eventually reach “Buddha” status and be liberated from pains and sufferings. (The other major Buddhist branch, Theravada, maintained that you’d have to lead a strictly religious life in order to achieve such a status. Theravada is dominant in South Eastern Asia.)
Nagarjuna also established the theory of “kuu (空)” (means “sky,” “void,” or “emptiness”), in which nothing is considered absolute and permanent. He concluded that Buddha taught that everything was constituted by relative relationships with other factors or elements; therefore there was nothing in anything. Yes could be no, and no could be yes and we had to accept it.
Whereas it sounds enigmatic, his theory was based on a solid and sophisticated philosophical framework. It influenced people who followed these teachings, especially in Eastern Asia. Mahanaya Buddhism was first brought to China from India, then to Korea, and finally to Japan in the 6th century.
Zen belongs to the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. It was founded by Bodhidharma who is believed to have been born in India and later moved to China sometime in the 5th or 6th centuries. Zen relies strictly on sitting meditation (zazen) to achieve religious enlightenment. After being practiced and refined in China, Zen was imported to Japan in the 11th ~ 13th century by prominent Japanese priests who traveled to China and learned the tenets of the religion.
Zen believes that you cannot attain religious truth – that eternal peace of mind that will finally come to you when you extinguish the flame of lust and desire – without strict physical/mental training. It therefore denies the text, even though Buddhism has tens of thousands of important text books written to explain Buddha’s profound teaching. Zen does not allow you to rely on reading those books to understand the truth “conceptually.” Zen maintains that truth can only be understood when you understand it physically, through indomitable dedication to a religious pursuit.
Whereas Zen almost looks like Theravada Buddhism because it requires strict training, Zen played critical role to “visualize” the theory of “kuu (空)” (emptiness) that Nagarjuna established.
When Zen was brought from China, Japan was in the middle of great social change. The power was shifting from aristocrats to military elites, and the economic/social block was expanding from regional centers to encompass almost the whole area of present day Japan. On one hand, it meant flourishing affluence, but it also meant intensified social conflicts for the wealth accumulated on an unprecedented scale.
Regional military leaders were solidifying their footings and intensifying conflict against other leaders. They always lived close to death, and desperately required mentors or religious guidance to stay calm and brave in a state of constant warfare. Zen priests were highly sought because stoic Zen philosophy resonated with the ethics of warriors (commonly known as bushi-do), who needed strong self-control skills.
Supported mainly by military elites, Zen priests pursued their religious path, which was often crystallized in the form of arts, because Zen denied the text. Since they couldn’t write down their experiences or what they experienced at the end of strict training, they used arts as a catalyst to express their enlightened moments. Their unique aesthetics were developed seeing extravagant culture enjoyed by social elites (who were often their patrons) on one side, and feeling the devastation suffered by ordinary people on the other side. Torn between extreme pleasure and pain, Zen priests sincerely self-questioned what it meant to achieve eternal truth.
It is amazing to remember that the Zen-inspired arts that cemented their foundation in the Middle Ages have never become obsolete. After more than 500 years, major Zen arts founded by Zen priests or under strong influence of Zen, such as Zen rock garden (kare-sansui), ikebana (Japanese traditional flower arrangement), bonsai, tea ceremony, and Nou theater still continue to inspire people from around the world, without changing their essential elements/aesthetics.
It’s probably in part because the Middle Ages were the era just before the Renaissance. After the Renaissance, humans started using a variety of flourishing technologies in order to achieve different works. But people in the Middle Ages only had their body and senses to accomplish daunting tasks. It’s most likely that they were trained to maximize their physical and cognitive potential to face various challenges. They could have seen things our technology-spoiled eyes can no longer detect.
Roots of major Zen-inspired Zero cultures
The strength of Zen arts is that they are the art of subtraction. Zen priests usually chose places in the middle of raw nature, such as caves or by waterfalls for meditation, and, in their pursuit to extinguish flame of desire, almost dissolved into that nature. They were the ones who witnessed every aspect of nature with keen senses and concentration. They saw ultimate beauty coming from deep inside it.
Going through strict self-questioning of “is this really needed?” in order to replicate what they saw in the heart of nature – not the surface – Zen priests/artists stripped away all frills and excesses that do not constitute essential elements. The outcomes are powerfully silent. Even though there is nothing flamboyant or decorative, or rather, exactly because there is nothing fancy – whose definition changes as time evolves – Zen art stands the test of time. Essential elements stay essential elements, because they speak to our fundamental existence.
Kare-sansui, or Zen rock garden, is probably the most popular Zen art. It was founded by a prominent Zen priest Muso Soseki （1275-1351). Kare-sansui does not rely on greens or water to let beautiful garden emerge. Instead, it lets boundless beauty emerge from the absence of those elements.
Bonsai is an art of condensation. By re-producing immense nature in a palm-sized cosmos, bonsai lets us to appreciate the essence of beauty.
Ikabana was founded by Zen priest Ikenobo Senkei in the 15th century. Using the asymmetric triangle as a basic framework, ikebana refined its aesthetic style over the next 500 years. Ikebana is a typical art of subtraction: it uses a minimum number of flowers, colors or even species to let a vast spatial expansion emerge.
Tea ceremony and Nou are coming soon!