Zen and the Arts

zen painting

Many scholars have ventured general comparisons of Eastern and Western Art. Suzuki (1957:30) suggests that Oriental art depicts spirit, while Western art depicts form. Watts (1957:174) holds that the West sees and depicts nature in terms of man-made symmetries and super imposed forms, squeezing nature to fit his own ideas, while the East accepts the object as is, and presents it for what it is, not what the artist thinks it means. Gulick puts it this way:

Oriental artists are not interested in a photographic representation of an object but in interpreting its spirits . . . . Occidental art . . . exalts personality, is anthropocentric . . . . Oriental art . . . has been cosmocentric. It sees man as an integral part of nature . . . . The affinity between man and nature was what impressed Oriental artists rather than their contrast, as in the West. To Occidentals, the physical world was an objective reality–to be analyzed, used, mastered. To Orientals, on the contrary, it was a realm of beauty to be admired, but also of mystery and illusion to be pictured by poets, explained by mythmakers, and mollified by priestly incantations. This contrast between East and West had incalculable influence on their respective arts, as well as on their philosophies and religions. (1963:253-255).

Art in the West has developed a complex linguistic symbolism through which the artist manipulates his material to communicate something to his audience. Art as communication is basic to Western aesthetics, as is the corollary interrelationship of form and content. Music is considered a language of feeling (Hanslick 1957) and consists of”sonorous moving forms.” A landscape painting in the Western tradition is not merely an aesthetically pleasing reproduction; the artist uses his techniques of balance, perspective, and color, to express a personal reaction to the landscape–his painting is a frozen human mood. The aesthetic object is used as a link between the audience and the artist’s feelings. And the artist’s technique is used to create an illusion of the forms of reality.

The Zen artist, on the other hand, tries to suggest by the simplest possible means the inherent nature of the aesthetic object. Anything may be painted, or expressed in poetry, and any sounds may become music. The job of the artist is to suggest the essence, the eternal qualities of the object, which is in itself a work of natural art before the artist arrives on the scene. In order to achieve this, the artist must fully understand the inner nature of the aesthetic object, its Buddha nature. This is the hard part. Technique, though important, is useless without it; and the actual execution of the art work may be startlingly spontaneous, once the artist has comprehended the essence of his subject.

Belief in the superiority of spiritual mastery over technical mastery is evidenced by numerous stories of bushido matches (Japanese sword fighting) in which untrained monks defeated trained samurai because they naturally comprehended the basic nature of the bushido contest, and had no fear of death whatsoever.

A Chinese painter was once commissioned to paint the Emperor’s favorite goat. The artist asked for the goat, that he might study it. After two years the Emperor, growing impatient, asked for the return of the goat; the artist obliged. Then the Emperor asked about the painting. The artist confessed that he had not yet made one, and taking an ink brush he drew eight nonchalant strokes, creating the most perfect goat in the annals of Chinese painting.

The style of painting favored by Zen artists makes use of a horsehair brush, black ink, and either paper or silk. It is known as sumi-e. The great economy of means is necessary to express the purity and simplicity of the eternal nature of the subject, and also because it is a generalizing factor. Zen art does not try to create the illusion of reality. It abandons true to life perspective, and works with artificial space relations which make one think beyond reality into the essence of reality. This concept of essence as opposed to illusion is basic to Zen art in all phases.

An interesting example of the varieties of approach to artistic representation is that of dance gesture in Asia.

Indian dance gestures, called mudra, have developed from a simple representative system to a highly abstract linguistic symbolism which can express non physical states of being; this development is remarkably similar to that which occurred in the history of Chinese writing: the slow development from pictographic to ideographic characters. The mudra are not immediately recognizable in most cases, and must be learned. A mudra might represent the beating of a drum with nearly imperceptible fingermotion, or perhaps a matching body motion. There is no drum, no physical activity of actual beating.

The contemporary opera of China (Peking Opera) is a relatively late development. Little is known of the earlier forms of Chinese opera in relation to their actual performance, though many texts are still extant. Dance gesture in Peking Opera is part of a bewildering gamut of highly stylized gestures, costumes, masks, and properties, all of which lead the initiated to immediate recognition of the characters and story being presented. Most dance gestures, though imaginative and graceful, are easily recognizable without instruction. When beating a drum, the hands and body move as if beating a drum: no drum is used, but even the uninitiated cannot mistake the meaning of the action. The gestures of Peking Opera are pictographic rather than ideographic, and are greatly stylized by convention.

In Japanese no drama, a Zen inspired form, the gestures have been abstracted by simplification, rather than imagination. As in sumi-e painting, the barest possible means are employed. But the aesthetics demands that we do not violate the basic nature of no: that it is a drama. It is not reality, nor does it attempt the illusion of reality: rather, it suggests reality in its essence. If completely imaginative gestures were used, one would be impressed with the skill of the performer in conjuring up before our eyes invisible drums or boats or swords. Our thoughts would be bound up in the intricacies of technique, rather than free to comprehend the underlying eternal truth. No, reality is not imitated in no drama: the essence of reality, that which is eternal, the Buddha nature in its general and particular forms is depicted.

Therefore, when a drum is to be beaten, an elaborate (but not too elaborate) toy drum is used as a prop, usually very small, and the performer beats upon it without sounding, and in a visual rhythm completely free of the accompanying music! We cannot possibly imagine that a real person is playing a real drum; we are forced beyond the surface of reality into the emptiness of essence, the just being so.

This forced abandonment of external reality is everywhere obvious in no. If a boat is called for in the story, an imaginary boat would let us imagine our own private imitation of reality: the no prop is a simple, open bamboo frame, wrapped in white paper: a public denial of external reality.

To complete the cycle, we must consider the proletarian theater of Japan, the kabuki. Here the aesthetic demands utmost imitation and dramatization of reality. Revolving stages and painted sets reproduce to the letter any city or country scene (and occasionally even ocean scenes). When a drum is to be beaten in kabuki, a real drum is really beaten. The overly dramatic quality of kabuki is most unZen, perhaps even antiZen. Today kabukiis vastly popular with all classes of people in Japan, but no remains an aristocratic, highly specialized art, inaccessible to most of the population.

It is strange that the peculiar nature of Zen aesthetics created a dramatic form, the no, which is so isolated from the main stream of social arts, while at the same time fostering a poetic form, the haiku, which has become immensely popular.

The haiku, as developed by Basho, and to a lesser extent by Issa, was couched in the popular idiom and avoided literary sounding phrases. It is poetry which celebrates the commonplace.

Gazing at the flowers
of the morning glory
I eat my breakfast. –Basho

Within the highly restrictive verseform of seventeen syllables, the haiku presents a precisely chosen objective slice of nature, and its earthiness is accessible to all who can read or hear it read; it carries out in poetry the ideals of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, who democratically held that every man has the same ability and opportunity to become enlightened regardless of education or status.

The aesthetic of haiku is not far removed from that of sumi e or no. The basic principle is still: the most of the essence with the least possible means. One must work within only a few syllables, and eschew the high-flown dramatic language typical of other genres.

Zen music is more difficult to discuss. A discussion of no music in detail would become overly technical, therefore this section shall be confined to a few general remarks of an introductory nature, to provide a basis for later discussion.

The Japanese have long been aware of the sounds of nature and have identified these with music. The Chinese have been a bit more hesitant to identify music as being those sounds produced by nature. In The Tale of Genji, music of nature plays at least an equal part with human music. Thus, in Zen-influenced music, one might expect to find an aesthetic situation similar to that in the other Zen arts: the essence of the sounds of nature suggested by the least possible means. Or, in further abstracted form: the essence of sound itself suggested by the least possible means. Both have a part in Zen music. It is first necessary to determine, then, the nature of sound as the Japanese heard it.

Sound exists in opposition to silence, and music must reflect this basic fact. Sounds take their being from silence and return to it. The inner nature of sound seems to be connected in some mysterious fashion to its transitory character. There is also in sound a sense of continual change, a “becoming,” an inexorable leading from tone to tone and finally back into silence.

Western music aesthetics is based upon the concept of a discrete tone as a building block of larger forms, which are in turn combined at various architectonic levels to create a movement or complete piece (for instance, the notes C,E,G may sound simultaneously as a chord, or sequentially as part of a melodic phrase; the chord or phrase may be combined with other chords or phrases to produce harmonic or melodic sections, which are in turn combined to produce sub divisions of movements, et cetera).

However, Zen music refuses to establish fixed pitch levels as building blocks, rather connects sounds together which are continually becoming one another, coalescing. From these sounds, longer melody lines are developed, but there is never a sense of architectonic structure, always free movement from idea to idea.

In no music, which is primarily composed of utai or singing and hayashi or orchestra, the rhythmic element is the underlying key. And the rhythm of no music is constructed in a fashion similar to that just discussed in connection with pitch level organization. Rather than a series of rhythmic building blocks on a fixed time constant as in Western music, no music utilizes a continually varying time structure, which effectively suggests varying degrees of kinetic tension. Each sound has its own rhythmic point in space time, and is not thought of as part of a pattern based on fixed clock time; it is itself and not related to any imaginary superimposed pattern.

Another genre, the music of the shakuhachi fits this aesthetic perfectly. It is primarily a melodic instrument (an open, vertical flute) and is extremely difficult to play; the performer gently coaxes the tones out of the instrument, producing an incredible variety of timbre and pitch gradation. The Chinese predecessor of this instrument (hsiao) was considerably easier to play and could manage discrete tones without any trouble. The influence of Zen on the nature of this instrument began when it came to Japan.

Source: “Zen and the Arts,” from Zen Buddhism and Its Relationships to Elements of Eastern and Western Arts (artsites.ucsc.edu)