Art educator Judy Callander writes about ZEN PAINTING: CATFISH, GOURDS, AND SELF REALIZATION
The visitor who arrives to view the gardens of the Taizo-in sub-temple of Kyoto's spacious Myoshin-ji Buddhist compound is immediately greeted by a painting on the verandah-a painting which places Taizo-In as an historical site for Zen teaching. The painting is, of course, a replica; the original, a National Treasure, is now safe in the National Museum. The artist, an early Zen painter-priest named Josetsu, is best known for this . painting and its enigmatic subject: "Trying to Catch a Catfish with a Gourd." A young fisherman stands by a stream awkwardly holding the gourd while a plump fish swims by innocently (and safely).
Josetsu illustrates a koan (a riddle used in the teaching of Buddhism to help a student realize" sa tori"), poses the unanswerable question, expresses the non-profundity of Zen thinking, and presents an early example of a genre of Japanese painting called zenki-ga, or Zen story pictures. After this time the character of zenki-ga moved from the formless, complex and unfocused Josetsu painting style to masterpieces of brevity and imagination. Zenki-ga capture the minor moments of monks as they defy Buddhist commandments, nap when they should be doing chores, sweep the paths when they should be meditating. They are seen shredding the sutras, using sculptures of Buddha and Bodhisattvas for firewood-all to demonstrate the folly of distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the pretensions of the priestly hierarchy.
Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch who traveled from India to China to establish Chan Buddhism in the 6th century, was painted countless times. His face reveals very non-Chinese features-bulging eyes, hooked nose, rough beard. He is a figure of energy-and concentration. His simple robe, outlined with long, bold strokes, describes his sturdy figure and expresses movement, an artistic convention from the 13th century Chinese master, Liang Kai. Liang Kai' s full-length portraits, accomplished with fewer than 24 strokes, were calligraphic tours de force.
Most endearing subjects are the legendary Zen monks. Like the artists who painted them, they lived outside the community and were itinerant teachers and beggars. Kensu, a favorite· subject of the late 15th century Zen priest-painter Yogetsu, is seen holding up a shrimp which he caught and will soon eat, demonstrating his indifference to the Buddhist proscription against eating any flesh. The eccentric Kensu scorned the temple and monastic community. The riverbed was his altar, and fishermen his companions. The painting style emulates the classic Liang Kai convention, as fluid, unbroken brush strokes describe the body. The artist concentrates on the monk's face and the complex details of the dangling shrimp in his attempt to create an icon to the simple concept that a humble monk living in intimate harmony with nature is more likely to attain enlightenment than a scholar.
Images and symbols in Japanese paintings also included landscapes inspired by paintings brought from China. The delicate washes of mountains and valleys floating in a dreamlike void became synonymous with Japanese Zen landscape style, but were actually inspired by the paintings of a 12th century Chinese priest, Mu Chi. Gradually a more expressive style emerged which added drama and, most important, instability to landscape compositions as a way to express life's insecurities.
With the onset of the Edo or Tokugawa Era of the 17th to 19th centuries, Japan's new elite, the military rulers, developed new tastes, as seen in the sumptuous screens at Nijo. This new genre inspired, of course, a counter movement, culminating in the extreme simplicity of the 18th and 19th century Zen painters.
In his painting, "Rice Threshing Mill," Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) makes reference to a multitude of Zen associations with one image. Here Ekaku uses Hui-neng, the 6th (and last recorded) Patriarch, as his primary focal point. He is shown as a humble laborer in the rice threshing room of his monastery. Hakuin' s inscription, however, also mentions another brother, making further reference to the flamboyant monk, Ikkyu, and his hedonistic life style. In the painting, the spontaneous, thick strokes of the rice thresher set off by delicate calligraphy bear ·early resemblance to 20th century Abstract Expressionism.
By the end of the 19th century Japanese paintings, woodblock prints and ceramics had been discovered by western culture. But it was the Zen painter, Sengai Gibon (1750-W37), who really took the 20th century viewer by surprise. At an exhibition of Zen non-conformists in Paris, Pablo Picasso stormed out after viewing Sengai Gibon' s paintings, declaring that Gibon was a fraud. He insisted that a Japanese man could not have painted such innovative pieces without having seen Picasso's work first.
Gibon' s "Frog and Snail" and "Waterfall at Shiraito" return Zen painting to the spontaneity and freshness of Josetsu. Again the humble, the everyday object becomes loaded with attributes. Gibon was perhaps alluding to a haiku by the great poet Basho in which the sudden leap of the frog into a pond was, for the poet and even for the frog, a stunning moment of self-realization. His inscription reads:
The Buddhas of the Three Worlds* Gobbled up in one mouthful. *("Three Worlds" alludes to past, present and future.) The art is sudden, spontaneous, immediate, suggesting that Enlightenment is close at hand.