The Lessons of Nothingness From Maverick Zen Monks

WASHINGTON — When the nation heaves, when the stress ranges spike, just a little nothingness goes a great distance.

“Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan,” on the Freer Gallery of Art (an arm of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), is a present of ravishing absence: a stark and exquisite exhibition the place kind is plunged into silence, and the ego dissolves into empty house. Large and majestic screens assist landscapes nearly impetuously spare. Kanji tumble down calligraphy scrolls. Cracked teacups grow to be portals to a world of impermanence.

It affords a tremendous introduction to Japanese (and a few Chinese) portray from the 14th to seventeenth centuries, however there are different causes you could discover it price your go to. Really, that is the exhibition for anybody in 2022 wishing that the anxious, gasping world exterior would simply shut up.

Zen is essentially the most purified and austere custom in Mahayana Buddhism, and “Mind Over Matter” brings out greater than 50 objects from the Freer’s wealthy assortment of Zen artwork, one of many largest exterior Japan. While the present comprises bowls, vases, lacquerware and woodblock-printed books, the majority is black ink portray, made by medieval monks working in Zen monasteries. The strains are calligraphic, impressionistic. The compositions be at liberty, generally even dashed off. Up to 90 % of a portray could also be left untouched — in a breathtaking screen from the early 17th century by Unkoku Tōeki, the river, the sky and the mountainside are all simply expanses of blankness.

But to the abbots and disciples who first contemplated these work, or to the artists who revered them centuries later, their scantness and spontaneity had a spiritual in addition to an aesthetic impulse. These have been artworks that would plunge you into the world by eradicating you from it, and render the self and the universe an identical. Now these monochrome work could appear simple, however their vanishing traces of black ink have the profundity of philosophy, particularly on the four- and six-panel screens proven right here in a low-lit gallery that makes even the minimalist soccer fields of Dia Beacon really feel overstuffed.

Zen Buddhism arose in China — the place the college is called Chan — someday within the late fifth century A.D., and flourished throughout the Tang and Song Dynasties. It was, from the beginning, a extra eccentric and spartan method to Buddhism than the Indian-rooted traditions that preceded it. The Zen/Chan patriarch Huineng (A.D. 638—713), an illiterate whose innate discernment of Buddha-nature would make him the college’s most influential pedagogue, espoused that enlightenment got here as a “sudden awakening,” versus the gradual attainment by which earlier Buddhists set retailer. The principal path to this sudden enlightenment was “no thought”: an emptying of the thoughts, achieved by way of meditation (Zen, in Japanese), till one reaches the best state of consciousness, generally known as satori.

Japanese monks touring to China had contact with Chan masters, however Zen turned correctly established in Japan solely towards 1200. You can see the brand new spiritual tone in 4 work (from a set of 16) of arhats, or disciples of the historic Buddha, achieved by the 14th-century artist Ryozen within the atelier of a Kyoto monastery.

Working from Chinese fashions, Ryozen painted the arhat Bhadra along with his mouth lolling open, his extra-long eyelashes drooping like palm fronds. The arhat Luohan additionally sits with mouth agape, a three-eyed demon by his facet; the arhat Nagasena is half-naked, his gown bowing off his gaunt and starved body. The figures are bald, knobbly, twisted by age; they don’t look pleasant; their severity and queerness put them at a ways from the serene bodhisattvas you could know. But as disciples who by way of their very own effort reached enlightenment and escaped the world of struggling, the arhats have been the prime exemplars of Zen observe.

Nowadays Zen has grow to be western shorthand for peace and calm, all too reducible as a way of life hack. (Certainly at present, in its meditation-app model: now Satori refers to a laser hair removing clinic, and as a substitute of contemplation on the tea ceremony now we have selfies at Cha Cha Matcha.) But Zen is about way more than steadiness. Zen can be shock, revolt and aberrancy. The masters have been ceaselessly thwacking their college students with picket staffs, or shouting and laughing into the wind, once they weren’t posing riddles (koan) that would by no means be understood. Maverick monks like Ikkyu Sojun, whose brash calligraphy broke with monastic celibacy and claimed that intercourse was a legitimate step towards satori.

Zen celebrated delinquent characters, reminiscent of the country Chinese poet Hanshan — generally known as Kanzan in Japanese, or Cold Mountain in English — whose unembellished verse was, so the legend goes, scrawled on tree trunks and rocks. Hanshan was a favourite topic of Zen painters, and he seems right here in a 14th-century scroll by an artist referred to as Kao. His hair is a rat’s nest, and his raggedy cloak has been rendered with only a easy calligraphic loop. (Hanshan would later be a muse for twentieth century American artists; Jack Kerouac devoted “The Dharma Bums” to him, and Brice Marden’s “Cold Mountain” collection drew on Zen traditions to reconcile portray and poetry.) Many of the Zen work right here have the identical enjoyment of insufficiency or inconclusion that Hanshan dropped at his verse:

My coronary heart is just like the autumn moon
Shining clear and clear within the inexperienced pool.
No, that’s not an excellent comparability.
Tell me how shall I clarify.

It was not all renunciation. In a sublime pair of black ink screens from the late sixteenth century, Japanese gents take their leisure within the Chinese vogue, working towards portray and calligraphy, taking part in music and go. Even when piecing collectively damaged ceramics, by way of the artwork of seen mending generally known as kintsugi, there was room for luxurious: A tea service has been soldered again along with rivulets of gold.

But you possibly can’t take it with you, and in Zen landscapes the world at hand all the time seems evanescent, abbreviated. Stunted bushes, rendered with a couple of slashes of black. Jagged mountains, wiped away within the mist. For all their magnificence, these idealized and streamlined Zen work are finest understood because the efforts of particular person monks to specific and to stimulate the no-thought that may reveal even portray as simply one other a part of this cycle of life and demise. They provide no lesson, or, quite, they provide Zen’s primordial lesson: the lesson of nothingness.

That philosophical reticence might make these work much more of a welcome disruption than their visible sparsity. Art at present is a parade of the self, a cavalcade of narrative, an infinite transmission of messages. It is all vainness. There’s a narrative from the ninth century about three Buddhist monks crossing a bridge in rural China and coming upon a disciple of the Zen grasp Rinzai. One of the monks gestures to the water flowing beneath them. He asks, in grand metaphor, “How deep is the river of Zen?” And the disciple, shifting to shove the opposite monk within the water, says “Find out for yourself.”

Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan

Through July 24, the Freer Gallery of Art (a part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), Jefferson Drive at twelfth Street, SW, Washington, D.C.; 202-633-1000,

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