Zen in the Japanese arts

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Zen in the Japanese arts

According to the Buddhist legend, one day Buddha entered the assembly hall where monks were gathered to receive the instructions and, instead of delivering a sermon or organizing the practice, he simply lifted a flower. The monks were confused. Only Kasyapa smiled upon which Buddha acknowledged his enlightenment. Zen Buddhists believe that at that moment the Dharma was transmitted from Buddha to Kasyapa. Therefore, they consider Kasyapa as their First Patriarch and the founder of their lineage. But, what did Kasyapa realize? This is the question that is most difficult to answer. Even Paul Williams, one of the foremost Buddhist scholars, said, “What Mahakasyapa understood I, alas, do not know!” (113). Zen Buddhists insist that the transmission of Dharma is outside the Scriptures, not dependent on books and letters. This statement makes speaking of Zen almost impossible. Yet, it is not impossible to point at it. Of course, the warning that needs to be given here is that, at best, the explanation could serve as a finger pointing to the moon but it will not be the moon itself.
Attempting to point at Zen or, to explain indirectly what Zen is, I would like to discuss briefly a few Buddhist doctrines that influenced it and then to discuss several artistic expressions of the Zen masters.
In any form of Buddhism, the key issue is the suffering and the goal is the elimination of the suffering. Therefore, I would like to approach three doctrines (or, rather, the evolution of one doctrine in three stages) that influenced Zen, focusing on the understanding of the origin of the suffering and the best means to eliminate it. First of all, Zen is one branch of a wide movement in Buddhism that is commonly known under the name – Mahahana. One of the key concepts of all Mahayana schools is the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness. This doctrine was first developed in the body of literature commonly known as Prajnaparamita, or the Perfection of Wisdom. A work by the second century Indian monk Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika (The fundamental verses of the Middle Way), was the philosophical summary of the Prajnaparamita literature and the doctrine of emptiness was established as the central Buddhist tenet. The doctrine of emptiness, in short, says that no phenomenon has independent existence. But, that means literally – no phenomenon has independent existence, including the mind, the empty space, the Buddha, the nirvana, the emptiness itself. The distinction that must be kept in mind her is that the emptiness does not mean nonexistence. It only means a lack of independent existence or, the essence. In accord with this doctrine, the freedom or nirvàõa is not a reality outside the worldly phenomena but a realization that there is no ultimate distinction between the phenomena. That means that there is no ultimate distinction between the samsara and nirvana or between the ordinary being and the Buddha. According to this doctrine, the suffering is not inherently existent. It only appears to exist (appears as real) in the minds of the people that cling to the phenomena as though they had an independent existence. The liberation from suffering is not liberation from anything real but, rather, a realization that the problem was in clinging to the wrong view that the suffering was real. The impact of this doctrine was enormous. By its proponents, it was considered to be the second turning of the wheel of Dharma (Buddha’s first speech being the first turning).
Eventually, largely in respond to the doctrine of emptiness, another doctrine developed whose proponents considered it to be the third turning of the will of Dharma. One of the names by which this school was known was Cittamatra, meaning – mind only. I shall not enter into the technical issues of the difference between Madhyamika (the Middle Way school) and Cittamatra. For this purpose, it would be sufficient to say that while for Madhyamika all phenomena were empty, here, in Cittamatra, all phenomena were empty except the mind. In the view of this school, Madhyamika did not apply the negation correctly. It stopped on subject-object dichotomy. Cittamatra found the mind or the pure consciousness as really existing and outside the subject-object dichotomy.
The next and final development of the same idea was the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha or, the doctrine of the Buddha-essence or Buddha-nature. Proponents of this doctrine consider it to be the fourth and final turning of the wheel of Dharma. This doctrine builds on Cittamatra in this way: The mind, which is real and is a substratum to all phenomena, is the Buddha-mind, it is permanent and eternal. The Buddha-mind is empty (so, the concept of emptiness is preserved) but, it is empty of defilements that simply do not exist at all from the point of view of its own innate purity. Each one of us has that Buddha-mind. Otherwise, liberation would not have been possible. Consequently, since we already have it, there is no need of practice or cultivation. All that we need to do is to recognize it. Therefore, there is no need of sutras or disciplines. There is nothing to develop. The wish to develop something is a product of a mistaken consciousness that still operates in terms of subject-object dichotomy.
These are, in brief and very simplified form, the doctrines that are behind the Zen. When Zen masters refer to the unborn mind, original mind, mind before mother and father, mind before the world was created etc., they are all referring to the Buddha-mind. Knowing this, it becomes easier to understand the statement attributed to Bodhidharma (regardless whether he himself was a historical figure or no):
Transmission outside of any doctrine
No dependence upon words.
Pointing directly at the mind,
Thus seeing into one’s own nature and
Attaining Buddhahood.
What is said here is that the words express nothing but views. But, all views are mistaken because they are products of the mind that operates in subject-object dichotomies. The Buddhahood is attained when the person sees his real nature – his clear consciousness that is beyond dualities.
It, also, becomes easier to understand the famous legend about the Sixth Patriarch. The story, in short, is this: The Fifth Patriarch wanted a successor. In order to find a truly enlightened person, he invited all monks to compose a poem. One of the poems was written by Shen-hsiu:
The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect. (Dumoulin, p.132)
Another poem was written by Hui-neng:
Originally there is no tree of enlightenment,
Nor is there a stand with a clear mirror.
From the beginning not one thing exists;
Where, then, is a grain of dust to cling? (Dumoulin, p.133)
Shen-hsiu’s understanding still included dualities. He still perceived the phenomena as existent outside the mind. That is why he thought that there is a dust that could cling on the mirror. Hui-neng, on the other hand, had a superior understanding that was outside the duality. His poem was written from the position of the Buddha-mind. Needless to say, Hui-neng became the Sixth Patriarch.
The experience of realizing one’s own Buddha-mind is called satori. That is the goal of Zen. It should not be expected that satori is a permanent experience, even though, scriptures suggest that there were many such cases. More often, it is a short-term experience that the practitioner strives to repeat. But, while having it, the person in satori sees through his Buddha-mind. In effect, he is a Buddha, equal to all Buddhas from the history. Zen art is a product of artistic expression from the point of view of the Buddha-mind.
Now I would like to turn to the artistic expression and attempt to discuss how the phenomenal world looks from the position of this mind. First, I would like to discuss two Zen paintings.
The Zen painting is not a painting of the external object, nor a painting of an internal object. It is an expression of the Buddha-mind. It is the Buddha-mind that expresses itself creatively and it is the Buddha-mind that is being expressed in the painting. The painting is only as good as the Buddha-mind expressed itself. If there was any trace of consciousness, effort, subject-object relation, then that was not an expression of the Buddha-mind and it was not a Zen art. For comparison, Zen painting had to be an expression like Hui-neng’s but not like Shen-hsiu’s who was still in the realm of dualities and effort. True Zen painting was not analytical pursuit of the details. Rather, it was a direct and immediate (unmediated) expression of the truth. Zen painting was not a painting of the nature or any object from the perspective of the Buddha-mind. It was, rather, undirected expression of the Buddha-mind that expressed itself.

AuthorDraško Mitrikjeski
2018-08-21T17:23:35+00:00 October 1st, 2002|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 28|0 Comments