Lessons of Nothingness from the Monks of Maverick Zen

WASHINGTON – When the country is on the cusp, when stress levels are rising, a little nothingness goes a long way.

“Think about it: Zen in Medieval Japan,” At the Freer Gallery of Art (a branch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), it is a display of enchanting absence: a stark and beautiful exhibition where form sinks into silence, and ego dissolves into empty space. The large, plush screens support almost landscapes. Kanji drops line scrolls. Cracked teacups become portals to a world of impermanence.

It makes a great introduction to Japanese (and some Chinese) paintings from the 14th to 17th centuries, but there are other reasons you might find it worth your visit. Really, this is the fair for anyone in 2022 wishing the anxious world gasping abroad was just Be Silent.

Zen is the purest and most austere tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, and “Mind Over Matter” features more than 50 pieces from Freer’s rich collection of Zen art, one of the largest outside Japan. While the display contains lacquer bowls, vases, and woodblock books, the bulk is a black ink painting, made by medieval monks working in Zen monasteries. Fonts are calligraphic and impressionistic. The compositions feel free, sometimes even choppy. Up to 90 percent of the painting may be left untouched Breathtaking screen from the early 17th century By Unkoku Tōeki, the river, sky, and mountain are all just expanses of emptiness.

But for the abbots and disciples who first contemplated these paintings, or for the artists who revered them centuries later, their stinginess and spontaneity had a religious motive as well as an aesthetic one. These were works of art that could plunge you into the world by removing you from it, and make self and universe identical. Now these monochrome panels may seem straightforward, but their fading traces of black ink have a depth of philosophy, especially on the four- and six-panel screens shown here in a low-light gallery that makes even the simple football fields of Dia Bacon feel sated.

Zen Buddhism originated in China – where the school is known as Chan – sometime in the late 5th century AD, and flourished during the Tang and Song dynasties. It was, from the start, a more eccentric and austere approach to Buddhism than the rooted Indian traditions that preceded it. Patriarch Zen/Chan Huening (638-713 CE), an illiterate whose innate distinction of Buddha nature would make him the school’s most influential teacher, held that enlightenment came as a “sudden awakening”, rather than the gradual attainment by which the earlier Buddhist group storehouses. The main path to this sudden enlightenment was “no-thinking”: emptying 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 properly established in Japan only around 1200. You can see the new religious tone in four paintings (from a set of 16) of the arhat, or disciples of the historical Buddha, done Ryozen artist from the 14th century in the workshop of a Kyoto monastery.

Work of Chinese Models, Ryozen Sketch Drawing Arhat Bhadra With his mouth open, his long eyelashes hang like palm fronds. Arhat Luhan also sits with his mouth, Three-Eyed Demon next to him; Arhat Nagasina is half naked, his robe bending over his emaciated and thirsty body. The figures are bald, zigzag, twisted by age; They don’t seem friendly Its intensity and allure puts it some distance from the quiet bodhisattvas you may know. But like disciples who by their own effort had reached enlightenment and escaped from the realm of suffering, the arhats were the primary archetypes of Zen practice.

Nowadays Zen has become a Western abbreviation for peace and quiet, all of which can be reduced to a lifestyle hack. (Certainly today, in the meditation app version: Satori now refers to a laser hair removal clinic, and instead of thinking about the tea party, we have the selfies at Cha Cha Matcha.) But Zen is more than just a balancing act. Zayn is also a surprise, a rebellion and an aberration. Professors were forever attacking their students with wooden items, or screaming and laughing in the wind, when they weren’t posing (kwan) riddles that could never be understood. Dissident monks like Ikyo Sojon, Which font is bold Shown here, he broke monastic celibacy and claimed that sex was a valid step toward Satori.

Zen celebrated antisocial figures, such as the rural Chinese poet Hanshan – known as Kanzan in Japanese, or Cold Mountain in English – whose poetry, legend has it, was unadorned, written on tree trunks and rocks. Hanshan was a favorite subject of Zen painters, and it appears here Scroll of the fourteenth century by an artist called Kao. His hair is a rat’s nest, and his tattered cloak is drawn with a simple linear loop. (Hanshan later became a source of inspiration for 20th-century American artists; Jack Kerouac dedicated “The Dharma Bums” to him, and Brice MardenThe Cold Mountain series relied on the Zen tradition to reconcile painting with poetry.) Many of the Zen paintings here have the same delight in the insufficiency or inconclusiveness that Hanshan brings to his poetry:

My heart is like an autumn moon
Shining clean and clear in the green pool.
No, this is not a good comparison.
Tell me how I will explain.

It was not all a concession. in A great pair of black ink screens From the late 16th century, Japanese gentlemen would take their spare time in the Chinese manner, practice painting and calligraphy, play music and go. Even when broken ceramics were grouped together, by the visual art of repair known as kintsugi, there was room for luxuries: the tea service was re-welded together using streams of gold.

But you can’t take it with you, and in Zen landscapes, the world to be delivered always seems fleeting and brief. Stunted trees, with a few slashes of lions. Rough mountains, erased in mist. Despite their complete beauty, perfect and simplified Zen paintings are best understood through the efforts of individual monks to express and stimulate a no-brainer that would reveal even painting as just another part of this life-and-death cycle. They offer no lesson, or rather they offer the lesson of primordial Zen: the lesson of nothingness.

This philosophical conservatism may make these paintings more of a welcome turbulence than their visual scattering. Art today is a display of oneself, a procession of narrative, an endless transmission of messages. All this is false. There is a 9th-century story about three Buddhist monks crossing a bridge in rural China and meeting a disciple of Zen master Rinzai. One of the monks points to the flow of water from under it. He asks, in a grand metaphor, “How deep is the Zen River?” And the disciple, moving 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 National Museum of Asian Art), Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC; 202-633-1000, si.edu/museums.