Home Art History Ancient Buddhist painting can help you understand the art of Zen

Ancient Buddhist painting can help you understand the art of Zen

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Conservators at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum worked hard for months on the display case. six persimmonsa 13th-century ink painting that will be the centerpiece of an upcoming exhibition; “The heart of Zen.” Its owner, Japan’s Kyoto National Museum, had provided the conservators with an extensive list of requirements regarding the quality of the air inside, as well as the material and dimensions of the case itself.

Even to experienced museum officials, the Kyoto team’s demands seem extreme, bordering on unreasonable. That is, until you consider the history of the art involved. It was drawn on a scroll by the famous Chinese monk Mokusai. six persimmons It’s as fragile as it is coveted. For centuries, this minimalist still life of autumn fruits was owned by wealthy Japanese families and displayed only during special tea ceremonies. After it finally ended up in the hands of Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto, it was transferred to the National Museum instead of being put on display. “Heart of Zen” is not only the first time Muki’s masterpiece has been shown to the public since it was exhibited at the Miho Museum in 2019, but also the first time it has been shown outside of Japan.

The reasons for this painting’s coveted status are manifold. Age and difficulty of access are part of the equation, but those aspects pale in comparison to its status as a unique example of Zen Buddhist philosophy.Created by a man credited with reaching the Enlightenment and praised by Western and Japanese critics alike six persimmons It was praised for helping viewers find inner peace with its soft colors and quiet composition.

This is an attractive and popular interpretation, but as the San Francisco exhibition hopes to show, it may not be as historically accurate as many think.

The secret of Zen Buddhism

Despite becoming one of the most famous Chinese painters of all time, Muki struggled to find success in his home country. Born at the end of the Southern Song Dynasty, this monk’s unique style of calligraphy of common subjects such as food, trees, and animals favored complex, expressive art rich in secular symbolism. It clashed with Song’s tastes. The qualities that made Makishi an iconoclast in the eyes of his fellow Chinese were accepted as progressive in neighboring Japan, and his work inspired painters for centuries.

glance six persimmons, It’s hard not to think about Zen Buddhism. Born in China and cultivated in Japan, this teaching rejects the study of ancient and esoteric scriptures in favor of meditation. According to Zen Buddhists, enlightenment is the product of unflinching introspection, not devotion to ritual or ritual. By drawing fruits that had no meaning in Chinese culture, six persimmons It forces the viewer to appreciate the subject for what it is, rather than the ideas it could represent. The result is a painting that cannot be analyzed but can only be experienced, in the same way that one interacts with flowing clouds or flowing water.

Mr. Muki six persimmons. (credit: Slide projector / Wikipedia)

The abstract, shadowless persimmons float in a depthless space. Yuki Morishima, an assistant curator at the Asian Art Museum, helped prepare the exhibition “The Heart of Zen” and was able to see it in person. six persimmons Although he had only been to Japan once before, he was as impressed by the negative space in this painting as he was by the positive space of the actual persimmon. Her response evokes the Zen concept of groundlessness, which calls for the need to embrace the inherent unpredictability of life.

If there is any symbolism in the persimmons of Makihita, it is symbolism in the broadest sense of the word. The fruit itself represents impermanence and the quest for Nirvana. Just as enlightenment comes after a lifetime of meditation, persimmons ripen in autumn, the season of death and decay. The soft, sour flesh, when preserved, turns into a hard, sweet candy, reflecting the way Zen monks transform suffering into serenity.

six persimmons: Is it an aesthetic or a way of life?

A closer look at Muki’s critical reviews reveals that his current reputation as an enlightened artist is a misconception. Morishima originally told Big Think: six persimmons It was treated as just a decoration. Its first owners, the Tsuda family of Japan, displayed it at ceremonies not to encourage some kind of spiritual discussion, but because its subject matter matched the type of food they served their guests.

In the 2021 article, Korean art history magazineKorean art historian Heeyeun Kang explains how. six persimmons It has acquired its current importance. Arriving in Japan with Zen Buddhism itself, Muki only began to be recognized as a distinctly Buddhist painter when the Japanese elite decided to establish Zen as a distinct aspect of Japanese identity.

Daitokuji Temple

Owned by Daitokuji Temple six persimmons, on a quiet day. (credit: 663 Highlands / Wikipedia)

Japanese critics such as Tenshin Okakura, Wataru Aimi, and Yasuichi Awakawa are at the forefront of this push for re-identification. six persimmons The cross in a Christian church is an icon that attempts to visually convey what the New Testament expresses in words. When Zen Buddhism began to gain popularity in the West, a popularity that continues to this day, European and American writers considered this new and highly marketable interpretation of Makisai’s work for what it was worth. I accepted it without any hesitation.

nevertheless six persimmons This painting may not be the intentional Buddhist masterpiece that many people believe it to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive as a work of art. His simple brushstrokes of Muqi, which optically correspond to poetry, evoke feelings that are far from simple. Standing in front of the scroll has a similar effect to meditating or opening his Calm app on your smartphone.

The more you look at it, the more the conflicts and anxieties of everyday life disappear, leaving only beauty, contentment, and a strong sense of existence. Just existing.

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