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Chan Art


From the point of view of art history, the Chan school (Japanese, Zen; Korean, Sŏn), more than any other form of Buddhism, has long been associated with distinctive modes of visual representation. Looking at Japan, for instance, such disparate forms as architecture, ceramics, tea ceremony, gardens, sculpture, and painting have been viewed as elements of a broad and unified Zen aesthetic that cuts across traditional boundaries. Since there is no category or concept of "Chan art" in surviving texts from the Tang (618–907) or Song (960–1279) dynasties, however, when the Chan school achieved its peak popularity, the historical origins of this aesthetic in China remain murky, at best. Indeed, in light of this lack of sources, scholars have had to develop their own criteria and definitions. A closer look at how these conceptions have evolved, particularly with regard to painting, may help illuminate the larger question (and problem) of how to define Chan art.

Western interest in art forms connected with Chan Buddhism was a natural outgrowth of the broader interest in Chan and Zen that began in the early 1900s and blossomed over the course of the century. One of the first scholars to identify Chan art (especially Chan painting) as a specific subcategory of Buddhist art was the eminent British Asianist Arthur Waley, whose Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting (1923) contained a chapter titled "Zen Buddhism and Its Relation

to Art" that proved to be enormously influential. (Waley, as was typical at the time, uses the Japanese term Zen rather than Chan, even when he is writing about China.) In particular, Waley's focus on the notion of painting as a vehicle for the expression of religious ideals provided a model approach that continues to be employed in many discussions of Chan art, even if some historians of art and religion have challenged some of its underlying assumptions.

Following Waley's example, it became common to define Chan art primarily in terms of subject matter, focusing on images (such as representations of Bodhidharma, the putative founder of Chan in China) that derive from Chan history and literature. Such works often carry additional meanings relating to Chan doctrine or ideology, as well. For example, the great many surviving paintings that depict the early Chan patriarchs might be interpreted as a pictorial counterpart to the concern with issues of lineage and transmission that figures so prominently in early Chan textual sources. In a similar vein, images of monks carrying hoes or chopping bamboo have frequently been related to the premium that Chan is said to place on the value of manual labor. While these kinds of explanatory strategies are relatively straightforward, most attempts to define Chan art also introduce other important issues concerning Chan ideals that merit further scrutiny—in particular, iconoclasm and self-expression.

Art and iconoclasm

One of the most distinctive attributes of Chan, as characterized in popular accounts, is its emphasis on eccentric and iconoclastic behavior, and images that celebrate these qualities are among the most commonly cited examples of Chan art. This repertoire would include portraits of such Tang dynasty figures as Hanshan and Shide—the wild poet of Cold Mountain and his impish sidekick—and the monk Bird's Nest, who took up residence in a tree, as well as other subjects equally noted for their unconventional appearance and frequently outlandish conduct.

In several well-known instances, the notion of iconoclastic behavior is not merely figurative. One painting, attributed to the thirteenth-century painter Liang Kai and executed in monochrome ink in an abbreviated manner, purportedly shows the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (638–713) tearing up sūtras with apparent gusto and evident glee. Another work, by the early fourteenth-century painter Yintuoluo, depicts "The Monk from Danxia Burning a Wooden Image of the Buddha." In most situations, one would expect such acts of desecration to be met with shock and disapproval, but what is noteworthy in this context is that ripping up a sacred text and burning a religious statue are presented not as acts of blasphemy but rather as manifestations of spiritual nonattachment. The philosophical basis for this view is cleverly demonstrated by the literary accounts of the incident depicted in Yintuoluo's painting.

Once, the monk from Danxia was staying at the Huilin Monastery. The weather was very cold, so the Master took a wooden statue of the Buddha and made a fire with it. When someone criticized him for doing so, the Master said: "I burned it in order to extract the sacred relics it contained." The man said: "But how can you extract the sacred relics from an ordinary piece of wood?" The Master replied: "Well, if it is nothing more than a piece of wood, then why scold me for burning it?" (Fontein and Hickman, pp. 36–37)

Quite apart from the obviously intentional humor of the anecdote (and of its pictorial representation), this inversion of sacred and profane is clearly meant to demonstrate in a graphic way the Chan school's avowed independence from words and images.

Art and expression

In the examples cited thus far, Chan art is essentially defined as a function of representation: Subject matter (or, more precisely, the correlation between pictorial content and Chan doctrine) is given precedence over style and authorship. A somewhat different, though complementary, approach, postulates that there are levels of meaning that can be generated by

artistic practice as well as by artistic product—levels of meaning, that is, that are a function of the creative act itself. From this perspective, an explicit connection would be drawn between the so-called splashed ink (pomo) mode of painting, characterized by rough and seemingly improvisational brushwork, and the emphasis on intuition, immediacy, and sudden enlightenment commonly associated with orthodox Chan teachings. In other words, the meaning of such works is located in the manner of execution, and does not depend on nor arise from any particular subject matter or iconography.

Some writers go even further, suggesting that there are artworks that embody Chan content (or essence) in a way that transcends issues of subject matter, style, and function altogether. According to this account, a new kind of painting developed in China during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the Chan monasteries clustered around the West Lake in Hangzhou. Executed by monk-painters, such works came to be seen both as a form of religious practice and as a record of the painter's spiritual achievement. As the well-known art historian Michael Sullivan describes it, "In seeking a technique with which to express the intensity of his intuition, the Chan painter turned to the brush and …proceeded to record his own moments of truth" (p. 148). From this point of view, in short, the unique and ineffable quality of Chan painting is nothing less than the embodiment of the enlightened mind of the painter.

The artist who is most often used to exemplify this ideal is the thirteenth-century Chinese monk Fachang, better known as Muqi, whose Six Persimmons is undoubtedly the most frequently reproduced and best-known example of Chan painting. Although this small, sketchy, monochrome painting might not seem like much at first glance, it has been repeatedly hailed as the greatest Chan painting of all time. Appropriately enough, it was Waley who first rhapsodized about the work, declaring Six Persimmons to be endowed with "a stupendous calm" (p. 231). For Waley, as for later commentators, this quality stands as a manifestation of the painter's spiritual achievement, as a living expression of the painter's original mind (Pallis, p. 44). Put bluntly: Six Persimmons is a great Chan painting, the argument goes, because Muqi was profoundly awakened.

Ultimately, this idea of the work of art as the physical embodiment of the spiritual realization of its maker lies behind the claims that a somewhat unlikely activity such as archery, say, can be a form of Chan art. That is, if the absence or presence of Chan essence in a painting depends upon the painter's own achievement, it then follows that virtually any activity or product, so to speak, will be similarly endowed. From there it is only a small step to the countless books and web sites that make Zen art forms (in some cases facetiously, to be sure) of everything from photography, writing, and psychoanalysis, to smoking, ice resurfacing, and procrastination.

Chan art as anti-art?

If Chan art from Waley onward has been characterized as diverging from other forms of Buddhist art both in terms of what it represents and how it represents it, it has also been portrayed as functioning differently from the norm. In comparison to traditional Buddhist art, which emphasizes the replication of set iconographical subjects and styles that conform to a canonical ideal, the Chan emphasis on iconoclasm—both figurative and literal—constitutes a kind of anti-Buddhist art. As one scholar puts it, "In (Chan/) Zen Buddhism, cult images in the traditional sense play as little a part as classic Mahāyāna sūtras. After all, (Chan/) Zen is looking for 'independence from holy scriptures' and 'a special transmission outside traditional doctrines.'" Thus, while cult images and icons are worshiped by other Buddhists, the Chan practitioner "ridicules the popular worship of relics" (Brinker 1996, pp. 38–39). Like claims about the Chan school itself, in short, Chan painting is presented here as unfettered by orthodox tradition.

A serious challenge to the basic assumptions of such interpretations has been offered by T. Griffith Foulk and Robert H. Sharf (1993/1994) in a detailed study of portraits of Chan abbots (a large and important subset of Chan-associated images). As they show quite convincingly, such portraits played an important role in Chan funerary and memorial rituals, and they conclude that "the portrait of the abbot, like the living abbot on his high seat, is thus properly viewed as a religious icon—it is a manifestation of buddhahood and a focus for ritual worship. As such, the portrait is functionally equivalent to the mummified remains of the abbot, to the relics of the Buddha, or to a stupa, in that it denotes the Buddha's presence in his very absence" (p. 210).

Their assertion—that Chan painting here functions very much like orthodox Buddhist painting does elsewhere—parallels several studies of Chan institutional history, which similarly conclude that Chan monasticism, contrary to popular perception, did not radically differ from supposed mainstream practices. That is, regardless of lineage or school affiliation, all Buddhist monks in the Song period took part in similar practices and rituals (e.g., studying and chanting sūtras, engaging in seated meditation) that were essentially part of the very structure of the monastic institution as a whole, and thus did not vary much between designated Chan monasteries and other establishments (Foulk, pp. 220–221).

From the perspective of art history, the relative lack of differentiation in terms of day-to-day activities and procedures between Chan monks and non-Chan monks suggests the likelihood of comparable continuity with regard to the images employed in support of those same activities. It suggests, that is, that Chan painting and Buddhist art, far from constituting inverse categories, should instead be understood as largely coextensive. If the popular conception of Chan and Zen doctrine as irrational and free from orthodox strictures is essentially a modern misreading (Sharf), so, too, must the prevailing definitions of Chan art as unfettered embodiments of the enlightened mind be seen as the result of the same false premises. There is little question that Chan visual culture served particular rhetorical and ideological claims, but we must also recognize that Chan art served the same sorts of iconic, ritual, and social functions as orthodox Buddhist art traditions.

See also:China, Buddhist Art in; Japan, Buddhist Art in; Korea, Buddhist Art in; Zen, Popular Conceptions of


Brinker, Helmut. Zen in the Art of Painting, tr. George Campbell. New York: Arkana, 1987.

Brinker, Helmut. Zen: Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings, tr. Andreas Leisinger. Zurich, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae, 1996.

Fontein, Jan, and Hickman, Money. Zen Painting and Calligraphy: An Exhibition of Works of Art Lent by Temples, Private Collectors, and Public and Private Museums in Japan, Organized in Collaboration with the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Government. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1970.

Foulk, T. Griffith. "Sung Controversies Concerning the 'Separate Transmission' of Ch'an." In Buddhism in the Sung, ed. Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Foulk, T. Griffith, and Sharf, Robert H. "On the Ritual Use of Ch'an Portraiture in Medieval China." Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie 7 (1993/1994): 149–219.

Hisamatsu Shin'ichi. "On Zen Art." Eastern Buddhist new series 1, no. 2 (1966): 21–33.

Munsterberg, Hugo. Zen and Oriental Art. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1965.

Pallis, Tim. "Nanrei Sohaku Kabori and His Teaching of Shikan One: A Remembrance." FAS Society Journal (Summer 1992): 37–45.

Seckel, Dietrich. Buddhist Art of East Asia, tr. Ulrich Mammitzsch. Bellingham: Center for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University, 1989.

Sharf, Robert H. "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism." In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China, 3rd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Waley, Arthur. An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting. London: Ernest Benn, 1923.

Weidner, Marsha, ed. Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism 850–1850. Lawrence, KS: Spencer Museum of Art, 1994.

Charles Lachman

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