Events In-Depth

Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan

Form is not other than Emptiness;
Emptiness is not other than Form.

-The Heart Sutra


This exhibition is a search for new ways to understand Zen communities in medieval Japan as embodied in representations of the Zen “pantheon”: the Buddha Sakyamuni and various bodhisattvas; the First Patriarch of Chan/Zen, Bodhidharma; Chinese and Japanese masters; and various exemplars and assimilated local divinities. It proposes that figure paintings, often graced with calligraphic inscriptions, played an indispensable role historically in the fashioning of Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen Buddhists to themselves and to the communities that supported (or competed with) them.1

Forty-seven paintings, hanging scrolls, and sets of painted sliding-door panels (fusuma-e) have been borrowed from Japanese, European, and American collections to address this topic. Dating from the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries and produced in China and Japan, these treasured works offer us a rare opportunity to explore the significance of figure painting in the presentation and performance of religious lineage within medieval Chan/Zen monastic settings and broader social-cultural contexts. Our attention is drawn to the visual characteristics of these paintings—their brush techniques and nuance-laden gestures, poses, and compositions—as well as to their fundamentally interregional and intercultural nature.

Portrait of the poet Hitomaro. Attributed to Takuma Eiga (act. 14th c.).

Gathering these treasured paintings in New York City brings to mind a beloved legend associated with Bodhidharma (Cats. 4–7) that suggests a felicitous leitmotif for this exhibition and catalogue. Early Chan texts inform us that Bodhidharma died at the ripe old age of 150 and was buried near Luoyang, the capital of the Northern Wei kingdom in Henan Province, China. Three years later, however, a Wei envoy returning to China from Central Asia happened to meet Bodhidharma in the mountainous Pamir region. The envoy inquired after Bodhidharma’s destination. The patriarch replied that he was heading west to India; his feet were bare and a single sandal dangled from one hand (Fig. 3.1).

When the envoy returned to the capital and learned that Bodhidharma had died years earlier, he reported to the court his strange encounter with the “resurrected” patriarch, whereupon Bodhidharma’s stupa (“burial mound”) was opened. His coffin was empty save for a single sandal.

The legend of Bodhidharma’s return to the West and the single sandal presents the patriarch as a teacher in motion, thereby complementing the famous account and well-known paintings of his meditating motionless for nine years before a cliff at the Shaolin Temple (C: Shaolinsi, J: Shorinji).2 It suggests too that Chan masters left behind miraculous traces, notwithstanding the doctrinal ideal of Emptiness (S: sunyata, J: ku) and an oft-declared preference for vanishing.3 Eminent masters not only left behind relics, as did their ancestor Sakyamuni, but they also produced numerous texts and commentaries, brush traces, and painted images. The latter, as this exhibition suggests, were continually on view, carefully preserved, and indeed would become ubiquitous and indispensable within the devotional, literary, and artistic lives of later generations of monks, nuns, and lay followers.

The Bodhidharma legend also alerts us to the border- and culture-crossing history of Buddhism and Chan/Zen, somewhat akin to the display of medieval and late medieval paintings from East Asia in early twenty-first century midtown

Manhattan. For whereas Bodhidharma traveled from Western Regions to China to introduce a particular form of meditation (S: dhyana) and a “special transmission outside the teaching” (J: kyoge betsuden), his “postmortem return” to India was followed by the spread throughout much of Asia, and later the globe, of a religious tradition vested with particular ritual and institutional practices, doctrinal and exegetical preferences, and a sophisticated handling of rhetoric and representation. Bodhidharma kept walking, one might say, from Asia to Europe, North America, and beyond. One is thus tempted to ask, alluding to a classic koan (an enigmatic proposition used in the Chan pedagogical tradition) about Bodhidharma’s travel to China: “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to the West?”4

Finally, the legend reminds us that exhibitions of medieval religious art, Buddhist or otherwise, are a bit like tomb openings. Occasioned by our modern curiosity about art, devotion, and the past, such exhibitions offer us a chance to view ancient objects shrouded in mystery and not intended for our eyes (but therefore all the more enthralling). Like Bodhidharma’s nearly empty tomb, meanwhile, an exhibition offers only fragments of what was. A glimpse into the recess of a tomb is often fleeting, moreover, and this exhibition, once it has closed, will return its objects to their owners and thereafter to subsequent display. This catalogue leaves behind a trace of their presence in New York; some viewers, we hope, will pick up the sandal and walk on.


Since World War II, there have been two major art exhibitions outside of Japan related to medieval Japanese Zen Buddhism. The first, “Zen Painting and Calligraphy,” held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1970, assembled some of the finest surviving works in Japanese collections and provided an overview of many of the principal premodern pictorial themes and genres of Chan and Zen Buddhism. Among this exhibition’s many merits was a shift from the then prevalent ahistorical and impressionistic understanding of cultural production associated with Chan/Zen to a more historically precise awareness of periods, cultures, genres, and works. The second exhibition, “Zen: Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings,” held at the RietbergMuseum in Zurich in 1993, limited its scope to Japan’s medieval period (ca. 1200–1600) but brought together an impressive selection of paintings, calligraphies, robes, and sculptures, many from temples in Japan and inaccessible to the general public. In Zurich, those works were framed within and explained largely in terms of a single concept, namely the numinous charisma attributed to the Zen religious master.5

The present exhibition, focusing on Japan’s medieval period and its antecedents in China, builds on the insights of these predecessors but directs attention specifically to the visually alluring but potentially esoteric subject of Zen figure painting. This pictorial category is anchored, in our thinking, to two historical and interpretive concerns. The first is our skepticism regarding the direct value of conventional understandings of Zen Art to the appreciation of medieval Chan/Zen painting. Most mainstream commentary on this idea has tended to emphasize an aesthetic of abstraction and minimalism, the psychological state of oneness or emptiness in artistic practice or viewer response, and a sort of grab bag of often airy and muddled impressions of meditative introspection. Such postwar understandings of Zen Art have significantly shaped our conceptualization of premodern Japanese cultural production. But they are for all practical purposes a modern invention that, as Gregory Levine suggests in his essay accompanying this catalogue, is less reliable or stable than we might think. Regardless of how important and interesting modern conceptions of Zen Art may be, they tend to exclude the ritual, even magical functions of visual images within Chan/Zen religious communities and to flatten the complexities of many different types of artifacts found within medieval monasteries. This myopia, we believe, inhibits a richer sense of how the brush arts contributed to and reflected the daily lives and spiritual and institutional concerns of medieval monks and nuns. In fact, the diverse and culturally specific works of painting and calligraphy that survive from medieval Chan/Zen monastic settings, when examined closely, unsettle some of our fondest preconceptions about Zen Art. The expository framework of this exhibition, therefore, presupposes the need to reexamine and rethink medieval Zen Art.

Our dubiousness about the modern rubric of Zen Art leaves us still with the question of how to better understand, art historically and otherwise, the large corpus of medieval pictorial and calligraphic objects traditionally linked to Zen Buddhism in Japan. In this regard we turn to both the foundational efforts of postwar art historians working on East Asian painting and calligraphy and the insights that have accumulated over the last several decades in the study of the diverse traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. In the most general terms, art-historical research on medieval Chan/Zen painting and calligraphy has provided us with close studies of “prime objects” in terms of visual form, epigraphic and philological content, and authorship. Recent scholarship in Buddhist Studies, benefiting from archival discoveries and inspired by institutional and social history as well as by the interpretive strategies of poststructuralism and critical theory, has augmented traditional study of canonical texts and figures—as exemplified by the research of the influential Japanese scholar Yanagida Seizan (b. 1922)—with new concerns and methods of inquiry regarding monastic institutions, the rhetorical dimensions of Chan texts and ritual, the relationship between Chan/Zen Buddhist communities and society at large, and the motivations of modern scholars.6 Yukio Lippit’s essay in this catalogue demonstrates how the sometimes radical understandings of recent Buddhological study can promote new habits of thinking about Chan/Zen figure painting, especially in relation to the tradition’s claim to represent a special, intuitive transmission of the Buddha’s wisdom “outside of the scriptures.”


At first glance medieval Chan/Zen figure painting may seem less visually impressive as Zen Art than the bold, gestural ink circles (J: enso) and sometimes humorous paintings of the Edo-period (1615–1868) Zen proselytizer Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) and his like or, for that matter, the rock-and-gravel gardens of Zen temples in Japan. Figural subjects are also less accessible than the evocative ink landscapes and symbolic trees and plants, such as orchid and bamboo, which have been accorded a privileged place within the canon of Chan/Zen painting. These latter subjects, it should be noted, were part of an iconography of scholar-official virtue as well as of Chan/Zen, and were executed in pictorial modes that either followed or varied only modestly from prevailing literati manners. They were not, therefore, exclusively or inherently “Zen.” In contrast, it was the specialized canon of Chan/Zen figure painting that departed from scholar-official norms of representation and assumed special importance as a more distinctively Chan/Zen pictorial category.

Many of the figures that entered the Chan/Zen visual canon were part of the immediate dharma family, while others were already popular and charismatic subjects in various forms of cultic worship or were apotheosized figures from other religious systems. Depicted in intimate scale on vertical hanging scrolls, these sacred figures could set in motion an array of relational dynamics with the recipient/viewer, including appreciation, edification, veneration, emulation, and identification. Although some of the represented patriarchs, such as the Fifth

Patriarch, Hongren (Cat. 8), were particular to the Chan/Zen dharma lineage, many of the deities of the broadly worshipped Mahayana Buddhist pantheon were incorporated into Chan/Zen visual cultures in new iconographies, such as Sakyamuni during his Descent from the Mountain (Cats. 1–3). Often, local deified figures were appropriated into Chan/Zen lore, and accorded special significance, such as the vagabond-like Budai (Cats. 9–14). To be sure, other types of figure painting were employed for ritual purposes in Chan and Zen monasteries, and many of these works, typically rendered in polychrome mineral pigments on silk, were common to multiple Buddhist schools (Cats. 26–31). Within the Chan/Zen milieu, however, the pictorial figure, regardless of its origins, served to embody the special nature of the Chan/Zen dharma genealogy, to visualize and arouse understanding of the acts and behaviors expected of an awakened Chan/Zen patriarch, and to mediate the relationships between charismatic masters and their constituencies. Paintings were also principal sites of calligraphic inscription, in which elegant and allusive poetry and prose served to express the calligrapher’s veneration of spiritual ancestors and his or her own self-awareness of dharma genealogy and the nature of Emptiness.

Underlying the rhetoric of transmission that often defined Chan/Zen figure painting was a fertile loam of narrative and memory that fed the sustained veneration of its pantheon, be it the moment when Buddha Sakyamuni wordlessly transmitted the dharma to his disciple Mahakasyapa, when the Sixth

Patriarch tore up a Buddhist sutra (scripture), or when the deified Japanese courtier Sugawara no Michizane visited China. The addition of only a few iconographic attributes on many stock compositions in seemingly repetitive poses could spark in the mind of the knowledgeable viewer recollection of such biographical, but often miraculous and even apocryphal, events, handed down within Chan/Zen communities even to the present day. The same sorts of narratives of transmission could be invoked only obliquely if at all in nonfigural subject matter. Inscriptions added to figure paintings by Chan and Zen monks functioned crucially in activating and heightening such hagiographical associations. They amplified the resonance of pictorial gestures and catalyzed the recognition of the slightest facial expressions as signifiers of awakening. The prominent abbots who versified on these scrolls were fully aware of the ability of such works to recall the past and to personalize affiliations between recipients and themselves, their monasteries, their congregations, and the Chan/Zen lineage itself. Even without inscriptive reference, however, Chan/Zen figure painting was auratic by nature—it evoked the powerful, charismatic, and compassionate presences and actions of great teachers who were distant in time or geography, bringing them, through the brush arts, compellingly close to hand.

Thus one might sense that time both “streams” and “pools” in Chan/Zen figure painting: the continuing flow of the Chan/Zen lineage across the centuries as embodied in the Buddha, Bodhidharma, and later patriarchs and masters, on the one hand, and the visualization of potent, singular moments of realization on the other. Each scroll concretized an exchange of dharma, learning, and orthodoxy from one monk to another and from the artist’s and calligrapher’s past to their present, long after the pictorialized events may themselves have taken place. The painted object itself, meanwhile, may reveal in its accumulation of connoisseurship documents or carefully preserved mounting its ongoing life as a treasured object of visual and religious significance.

The Anglophone word figure, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, can refer to “the form of anything asdetermined by the outline,” an “attribute of body,” or a visual,“embodied (human) form.”7 Chan and Zen figure paintingsoperate pictorially, one might say, in the spaces between outlineand embodiment; visibly present, sometimes only with thethinnest traces of form, they suggest something beyond externalform. Although many of the paintings exhibited here aremonochrome, they reflect a wide variety of brush techniquesand tonal effects, which are explored in greater detail in thiscatalogue’s individual entries. Some modes of Chan/Zen inkpainting, such as the strikingly pale-toned “apparition painting”(C: wanglianghua, J: moryoga), challenge the optical and perceptualprocess of looking (Cats. 10, 11). By diluting to anextreme the ink used to depict its subject, and contrasting thiswith jet black accents of ink for accoutrements and selectareas of the face—such as the eyes, nostrils, mouth—apparition painting expresses the illusory ambiguities of dualisticthinking through its very manipulation of ink liquidity. This andother modes of figural representation provided more thanpictorial pretexts for priestly inscription; they actively complementedand catalyzed a Chan/Zen monk’s performativedemonstration of his awakened status.


During the medieval period, these features of narrative and pictorial expression were part of a Chan Buddhist macroculture, and indeed many of the scrolls in this exhibition were brought to Japan as part of a steady circulation of people, rituals, texts, and artifacts across East Asia from the twelfth century onward. It was at the height of Chan Buddhism’s institutional dominance in China that specific institutions and practices began to be systematically introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks returning from the continent and by émigré Chinese religious masters. Through their efforts, the infrastructure for the practice of Zen was gradually established in three centers: Kamakura, the seat of the shogunate; Kyoto, the traditional imperial capital; and Hakata, located in the north of the island Kyushu and a vibrant trade entrepôt indispensable to interregional cultural exchange. In these locales warrior and aristocratic patrons helped monks establish the earliest temple compounds and monastic communities. Ultimately this phenomenon, which Martin Collcutt explores in greater detail in his essay, can be characterized as the transplantation of Song monastic culture in general to Japan under the sign of the Zen dharma transmission.8

Given the historical erosion of Chan monastic sites and artifacts in China, due partly to political circumstances throughout subsequent centuries, the large number of Chan paintings and calligraphies from the Song dynasty that survive in Japan have often been fitted to an argument that makes Japanese Zen the apogee of what was in fact an interdependent religious tradition and culture across East Asia. Rather than viewing Japanese Zen as the ultimate culmination, therefore, we see the trove of materials extant in Japanese monasteries, temples, and museums (and later passing into Western collections) as a basis from which to reconstruct an explicitly interregional history of Chan and Zen visual culture, distinguished by pluralism and multi-sectarian flavor.

For example, subjects closely associated with Buddhist miraculous sites in China and not exclusively Chan, such as Mañjusri in a Braided Robe (Cats. 32, 33), or with literati eremitism, such as White-Robed Guanyin (Cats. 39–43), were understood in Japan primarily through the lens of the Chan special transmission. At the same time, new members were added to the pantheon by Zen communities in Japan, most famously reflected in paintings of Tenjin Visiting China (Cats. 35, 36). In Japan established figure-painting themes were also quickly assimilated to new types of formats and spaces that characterized Zen monasteries, such as interior sliding-door panels (Cats. 37, 38). In some instances the pictorial environments formed and enclosed by such panels within Zen temples—such as Yotokuin and Daisen’in of Daitokuji, the sites featured in this exhibition—suggest the collapsing of time and space to allow the august patriarchal ancestors of the Chan genealogy, present in pictorial form, to commingle with their later dharma descendants in Japan.


The characteristics of Chan/Zen figure painting touched upon here were by no means fixed in amber throughout the premodern period. Indeed, by the Edo period the social organization, political behaviors, and rhythms of daily Zen monastic life had in some respects altered dramatically. The salons of eminent abbots, abbesses, and younger monks and nuns that were an important matrix for Zen cultural production during the medieval period, for instance, were to some extent dissipated with the formation of ever larger numbers of Zen sublineages within individual monasteries. The rise of Chanoyu, one of Japan’s traditions of tea culture, during the sixteenth century shifted to some degree the energies of Zen monks and nuns from internal scholarly and cultural practice specific to monastic communities toward an intensified nexus of sociocultural interaction with elite warriors, merchants, and members of other Buddhist schools. The increasingly stringent control exerted by the Tokugawa shogunate on Zen monasteries and clerics, meanwhile, forced Zen leaders to attend to the defense of age-old privileges predicated upon religious rather than kingly authority. The arrival of a new Chinese Chan community to Japan in the seventeenth century, the Obaku sect from southeastern FujianProvince, had an even more profound effect upon the assimilated Song-dynasty Chan that underlay the Japanese Rinzai and Soto institutions during the medieval and late medieval periods. With the Obaku community came not only distinctive amalgamations of Chan and Mahayana practice, but also new configurations of continental culture and different sorts of built environments that presented practitioners and patrons with a realignment of Zen in religious, spatial, and visual terms. Medieval Zen has been sustained through the early modern period to the present through remarkably resilient facets of ritual practice, institutional organization, pedagogy, and philosophical discourse, as well as the presences of treasured works of painting and calligraphy, but the religious and visual worlds in which monks and nuns pursued awakening offered new conditions and challenges. New modes of figural representation in ink during the Edo period, such as that associated with Hakuin Ekaku, reflected the changed conditions of monastic-lay relations, in which semi-itinerant proselytizers competed for spiritual attention within an ever more crowded and pluralistic environment for the transmission of dharma. In this regard, the medieval works assembled and examined here reflect a qualitatively different set of contexts and communities for Zen practice and cultural expression than what is found in early modern Japan.

Medieval Chan/Zen figure paintings, here often allied with calligraphic inscription, have special capacities that make them particular places of visual encounter with the dharma. The embeddedness of these images in their particular circumstances of painterly and calligraphic practice, their institutional contexts, their self-conscious deployment of the ideology of Chan/Zen transmission, and their rhetorical narratives of awakening compel us, we believe, to look and look again.




1. Readers should note the lexical distinctions between Chinese Chan, Korean Seon, and Japanese Zen that signify particular and not entirely uniform religious and visual traditions. We also adopt the usage “Chan/Zen” when referring to the interregional tradition linking China and Japan.

2. For Bodhidharma’s biography, see Jeffrey L. Broughton, The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1999); Bernard Faure, “Bodhidharma asTextual and Religious Paradigm,” History of Religions, vol. 25, no. 3(February 1986), pp. 187–98.

3. Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991),p. 144.

4. We refer here to the ancient koan “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming [to China] from the West?” See, for example, Wumen Huikai, Wumenguan (Gateless Barrier; 1228), case 37, in Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Three Chan Classics: The Recorded Sayings of Linji, Wumen’s Gate, The Faithmind Maxim (Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1999), p. 99; Victor Sogen Hori, Zen Sand: The Book ofCapping Phrases for Koan Practice (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘I Press, 2003), pp. 644–45.

5. Other exhibitions have taken up the genre of Zenga (“Zen painting”), especially paintings executed during the Edo period by Zen monks such as Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) and Sengai Gibon (1750–1837). Although the MFA exhibition of 1970 combined Zenga with medieval Japanese Zen artifacts, there is little if any direct continuity between them.

6. See the work of Carl Bielefeldt, William Bodiford, Bernard Faure, T. Griffith Foulk, Morten Schlütter, Robert H. Sharf, Albert Welter, and others cited in the “Literature on Chan/Seon/Zen Buddhism” section of this catalogue’s Bibliography. Japanese scholars such as Takenuki Gensho and Harada Masatoshi also deserve mention.

7. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “figure,” (accessed 15 September 2006).

8. Seon Buddhism flourished in the Korean Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), but unfortunately no related early works have survived, making it difficult to understand the nature of paintings in Seon communities.

Topics:  Art

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