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Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan

Topics:  Art

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About this Gallery

Pictorial representations of the Zen pantheon—the Buddha Sakyamuni and various bodhisattvas; the First Patriarch, Bodhidharma; famous (or legendary) Chinese and Japanese monks; and assorted exemplars and local divinities assimilated from other religious traditions—played an indispensable role in the cultures of Zen communities in medieval Japan. Far more than evocative depictions of saintly or quirky personages, these images, often graced with calligraphic inscriptions, embody and “perform” the attainment of the ultimate Zen Buddhist goal of “awakening” (J: satori), historically allowing Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen communities to imagine the transmission of the dharma (Buddhist law) from the Buddha and patriarchs down through the ages. Put differently, figure painting and calligraphy were the warp and weft of a particular expressive culture in medieval Zen, a culture infused with messages at once personal, spiritual, artistic, literary, and ideological. These arts were particular places of visual and verbal encounter with the dharma.

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