Lessons of Nothingness from Maverick Zen Monks

WASHINGTON – When the country rises, when stress levels rise, little to nothing goes far.

“Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan,” at the Freer Gallery of Art (an arm of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), is a show of enchanting absence: a sharp and beautiful exhibition in which form is thrown into silence, and the ego dissolves in the empty space. Large and majestic screens support landscapes almost eagerly sparing. Kanji rolls down calligraphy scrolls. Cracked teacups become portals to a world of perishability.

It provides a nice introduction to Japanese (and somewhat Chinese) painting from the 14th to the 17th century, but there are other reasons why you may find it worth a visit. Truly, this is the exhibition for everyone in 2022 who wants the anxious, gasping world outside just shut up.

Zen is the most purified and stringent tradition in Mahayana Buddhism, and “Mind Over Matter” brings more than 50 objects from Freer’s rich collection of Zen art, one of the largest outside of Japan. While the show features bowls, vases, lacquer and wooden block-printed books, the bulk is black ink painting, made by medieval monks working in Zen monasteries. The lines are calligraphic, impressionistic. The compositions feel free, sometimes even crashed off. Up to 90 percent of a painting can be left untouched – in a breathtaking display from the early 17th century by Unkoku Tōeki, the river, the sky and the mountainside are all mere expanses of brilliance.

But for the abbots and disciples who first considered these paintings, or for the artists who honored them centuries later, their smallness and spontaneity had a religious as well as an aesthetic impulse. These were works of art that could throw you into the world by removing you from it and making the self and the universe identical. Now these monochrome paintings may seem straightforward, but their disappearing traces of black ink have a deep philosophy, especially on the four- and six-panel screens shown here in a low-lit gallery that makes even the minimalist football pitches in Dia Beacon feel . crowded.

Zen Buddhism originated in China – where the school is known as Chan – sometime in the late fifth century AD, and flourished during the Tang and Song dynasties. It was from the beginning a more eccentric and spartan approach to Buddhism than the Indian-rooted traditions that preceded it. Zen / Chan Patriarch Huineng (AD 638-713), an illiterate whose innate distinction to Buddha nature would make him the school’s most influential educator, argued that enlightenment came as a “sudden awakening,” as opposed to the gradual awakening. achievement, which past Buddhists emphasize. The main path to this sudden enlightenment was “no thought”: an emptying of the mind, achieved through meditation (Zen, in Japanese), until one reaches the highest state of consciousness, known as satori.

Japanese monks traveling to China had contact with Chan masters, but zen was not properly established in Japan until around 1200. You can see the new religious tone in four paintings (from a set of 16) of arhats, or disciples of it historical Buddha, performed by the artist Ryozen from the 14th century in the studio of a Kyoto monastery.

Based on Chinese models, Ryozen painted arhat Bhadra with his mouth open, and his extra long eyelashes hanging like palm leaves. Arhaten Luohan also sits with mouth agape, a three-eyed demon by his side; arhaten Nagasena is half-naked, his robe bending over his skinny and starving body. The figures are bald, gnarled, twisted according to age; they do not look friendly; their austerity and peculiarity put them at some distance from the serene bodhisattvas you may know. But as disciples who, through their own efforts, attained enlightenment and escaped the world of suffering, the Arhats were the best examples of Zen practice.

Today, Zen has become a Western shorthand for peace and quiet, far too reduced as a lifestyle hack. (Probably today, in its meditation app version: now Satori refers to a laser hair removal clinic, and instead of contemplation at the tea ceremony, we have selfies at Cha Cha Matcha.) But Zen is about much more than balance. Zen is also surprise, rebellion and aberrance. The masters forever beat their students with wooden sticks or shouted and laughed in the wind when they did not ask riddles (koan) that could never be understood. Maverick monks like Ikkyu Sojun, whose brave calligraphy can be seen here, broke with monastic celibacy and claimed that sex was a valid step towards satori.

Zen paid homage to antisocial characters, such as the rustic Chinese poet Hanshan – known as Kanzan in Japanese or Cold Mountain in English – whose unadorned verses were, as legend has it, scribbled on tree trunks and rocks. Hanshan was a favorite subject among Zen painters, and he appears here in a 14th-century roll by an artist called Kao. His hair is a rotten one, and his ragged cloak has been reproduced with just a simple calligraphic loop. (Hanshan was later to be a muse for 20th-century American artists; Jack Kerouac dedicated “The Dharma Bums” to him, and Brice Marden’s “Cold Mountain” series drew on Zen traditions to unite painting and poetry.) Many of the Zen paintings here have the same joy of inadequacy or inconclusion that Hanshan brought to his verse:

My heart is like the autumn moon
Spotlessly clean and clear in the green pool.
No, that’s not a good comparison.
Tell me how to explain.

It was not all renunciation. In a sublime pair of black ink screens from the late 16th century, Japanese gentlemen take a casual look at Chinese fashion, practicing painting and calligraphy, playing music and walking. Even when one shatters ruined pottery, through the art of visibly repairing known as kintsugi, there was room for luxury: A testel has been soldered together with peasants of gold.

But you can not take it with you, and in Zen landscapes the world at hand always appears fleeting, abbreviated. Crippled trees, reproduced with a few streaks of black. Scratched mountains, dried away in the fog. Despite their beauty, these idealized and streamlined zen paintings are best understood as individual monks’ efforts to express and stimulate the no-thought that would reveal even painting as just another part of this cycle of life and death. They offer no lesson, or rather, they offer Zen’s original lesson: the lesson of nothingness.

The philosophical restraint can make these paintings even more of a welcome distraction than their visual frugality. Art today is a parade of the self, a cavalcade of narrative, an endless transmission of messages. It’s all vanity. There is a story from the ninth century about three Buddhist monks crossing a bridge in rural China and encountering a disciple of the Zen master Rinzai. One of the monks gestures to the water flowing beneath them. He asks in great metaphor, “How deep is the Zen River?” And the disciple, who moves to push the other monk into the water, says “Find out for yourself.”


Mind Over Matter: Zen in medieval Japan

Through July 24, Freer Gallery of Art (part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC; 202-633-1000, si.edu/museums.

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