This paper will discuss Zen Buddhism, and the interrelationships among Zen philosophy, painting, poetry and music. Zen is a Japanese branch of Buddhism, the practice of which is largely based on meditation and introspection. The teachings of Zen are considered to have been directly passed down from Gautama Buddha himself, during the sixth century B.C. in India. After that time Zen teachings continued to be passed through direct transmission from one teacher to the next, and by the 12th and 13th centuries A.D., they had spread to China, Korea, and Japan. Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, is credited with having first merged Indian Buddhism with Chinese philosophy, thereby establishing certain characteristics which would come to be associated with Zen in later years.
Zen is a unique form of Buddhism which teaches that enlightenment, or satori, can be realized through “direct immediate perception.” This direct perception in Zen is a mode of thought that goes beyond rational logic. In fact, it has been stated that the “condition of enlightenment itself, and not words about that condition, are what matter in Zen.” Thus, Zen is not a philosophy which can be successfully taught through traditional methods of study, but rather requires a direct apprehension on the part of the student.
As Japanese Zen devleoped, two distinct groups evolved which take different approaches to the goal of reaching satori. Soto Zen relies on “zazen,” or meditation, as a method for reaching gradual enlightenment. Rinzai Zen, which also uses meditation, relies more on the use of “koan” to obtain sudden enlightenment. These two schools of Zen Buddhism have had a profound impact on Japanese culture, which is particularly evident in the arts. In addition to having had a great influence on Japanese poetry, painting and music, Zen has been instrumental in shaping many elements of Japanese culture, such as calligraphy, flower arranging, gardening, the tea ceremony, martial arts, and the Noh theater.
In all arts and practices which are Zen-influenced or inspired, the idea of direct immediate perception is expressed in one way or another. An example of this concept of direct pointing can be seen in this Japanese haiku, written by Buson: “Over water,/ sharp sickles/ of reed gatherers.” This haiku represents a perception which simply observes the activity of reed gatherers without making a rational or subjective commentary about them. Yet, at the same time, it is filled with poetic impact, and creates a strong pictorial image in the mind of the reader. Thus, this is an excellent example of a Zen-influenced haiku, which is a form of poetry meant to introduce a direct perception of nature.
The incorporation of Zen thought into the Japanese arts is often used to encourage going beyond rational thought, in order to facilitate enlightenment in everyday life. This can be seen in the following poem by the Zen Master Muso:
Vainly I dug for a perfect sky,
Piling a barrier all around.
Then one black night, lifting a heavy
Tile, I crushed the skeletal void!
In this poem, the words themselves seem less important than the feeling that it seeks to convey of reaching enlightenment, which Muso relates to “crushing the skeletal void,” as being sudden, quick, unexpected, and resulting at a time when one is not consciously striving to find it.
It is interesting to note that the pervasive Zen influence on Japanese art began during the Ashikaga period (1392-1568), which is known as the Age of Warriors. This is a period of feudal Japanese history which was the colorful time of samurai warriors and Shogun, when martial arts were developed to their highest degree. Zen Buddhism was adopted as the basis of a system for discipline and a way of life for the warrior class during that time. The Zen influence on the martial arts transformed them from mere methods of offense and defense to spiritual arts. In this context, Eugen Herrigel has described the Zen perspective relating to the martial art of archery, which
. . . can in no circumstances mean accomplishing
anything outwardy with bow and arrow, but only
inwardly, with oneself. Bow and arrow are only a
pretext for something that could just as well happen
without them, only the way to a goal, not the goal
itself, only helps for the last decisive leap.
This way of viewing archery is again a method for finding
direct immediate perception, as in the other Zen inspired arts. As Zen became absorbed into the warrior class during the Ashikaga period, its influence also gradually spread to the rulers and the common people of Japan. Thus, the role of Zen in Japanese culture became firmly established at that time, and Zen philosophy began to be felt not only in all of the Japanese arts but in everyday life in general as well.
Alan Watts has stated: The unique quality of Zen Buddhism, and of all the arts which it has inspired, is a profoundly startling simplicity. There is a complete lack of the unessential and a marvelously refreshing directness.” Of all the various arts, this quality is perhaps most apparent in Zen painting. This style of Zen painting is always based on simplicity. For example, Sumi painting is a style which depicts simple objects or settings using only black ink on white paper. Thus, the essence of the thing being painted is captured, rather than a pictorially perfect image. This is a manifestation of the Zen approach to direct perception through painting, and as such it represents an attempt to achieve enlightenment through direct pointing. Enlightenment is considered to arrive through the intuitive perception of reality, as opposed to rational thought. This is an essential concept at play in Sumi painting, where “the blank sheet of paper is perceived only as paper, and remains as paper. Only by filling the paper does it become empty.” It must be noted here that “emptiness,” in terms of Zen philosophy, may be defined as enlightenment. It is interesting to conjecture that perhaps this relationship between emptiness and enlightenment may be largely influential in the Zen attitude toward simplicity as a standard for art and action.
As Zen painting developed it took on a style of its own which is characterized by spontaneity and the conveyance of a certain emotion. Somewhat ironically, Zen painting presents a sense of balance which is actually based on the use of asymmetry and imbalance. The method of Zen painting involves using these elements in order to attain a perception of reality that goes beyond the simple aesthetic ideas of beauty and likeness. In the words of Ching Hao, a master of painting in the Zen style:
Painting is to paint, to estimate the shapes
of things and really obtain them, to estimate
the beauty of things and reach it, to estimate
the reality (significance) of things and grasp
it. One should not take outward beauty for
reality; he who does not understand this mystery
will not obtain the truth, even though his pictures
may contain likeness.
Although Zen elements may be seen in many forms of Japanese poetry, no form shows a stronger Zen influence than haiku. Haiku poetry truly exemplifies Zen with its brevity, disciplined format, and transcendental themes treated in the most simple, direct manner possible. Thirteen particular atatributes have been applied to haiku, all of which are strongly connected with Zen philosophy. These 13 attributes are: “selflessness, loneliness, grateful acceptance, wordlessness, nonintellectuality, contradictoriness, humor, freedom, nonmorality, simplicity, materiality, love, courage.”
There have been numerous Zen poets and masters of haiku throughout Japan’s history. However, Matsuo Basho stands out as a model for the Japanese approach to both the haiku form and Zen poetry in general. Basho lived from 1644 to 1694, and was a highly influential Zen poet who also studied Zen Buddhism. An excellent example of Basho’s mastery of haiku can be seen in what is perhaps his most famous poem: “The old pond./ A frog jumps in./ Plop!” Although this haiku is extremely simple it nonetheless seems to be filled with meaning. One can see a parallel between the frog and the seeker of satori, who suddenly finds enlightenment in ordinary surroundings. Alan Watts has noted that the underlying message of the poem is that enlightenment may result from the direct perception of even such a simple act as this. Thus, the haiku represents a special moment for the observer, “when the mystery of the universe was solved in the plop of the falling frog.”
This haiku has been cited as being representative of Zen ideals in another sense as well. As such, it has been noted that the haiku presents a profound symbolic image despite its apparently simplistic form. On the surface, the poem is a simple observation of nature. However,
. . . if you meditate long enough upon the poem,
you will discover that the action thus described
is not merely an external one, that it also
exists internally, that the pond is, indeed, a
mirror held up to reflect the author’s mind.
Basho exhibited the Zen spirit in his approach to poetry through both spontaneity and directness. For example, in his Travel Sketches, he described how a certain poem was written after he was moved by the impressive tranquility of a massive temple. Basho bowed in reverence at the various shrines located amidst numerous large rocks that were located throughout the temple grounds and the surrounding mountain. Despite the strong emotions this aroused in him, his poem reflected a tranquil simplicity and the quality of direct perception in his experience: “In the utter silence/ Of a temple,/ A cicada’s voice alone/ Penetrates the rocks.”
Zen influences can be readily seen in Japanese music as well as the other arts. Music has always been a fundamental aspect of all branches of Buddhism, including Zen. Certain musical instruments are identified with the Buddhist faith, such as the “han,” a large board with a mallet which is struck to call monks to the meditation hall for zazen, and the “o-gane,” a large tubular bell which hangs horizontally and is used to announce important Buddhist holy days. Although these two instruments are the ones most commonly associated with Zen, the Zen monasteries of Japan use as many as 20 or more different musical instruments “to regulate the monk’s daily life.” These include various types of drums or “taiko,” and the “shakuhachi,” a type of Japanese flute which is often played in Zen temples. The music composed for this particular instrument shows a certain Zen attitude: “While shakuhachi music is one of the freest in Japan, it still has discernable formal principles at work in every composition.” Thus, Zen music merges the concepts of spontaneity and discipline, as do the other arts.
The Zen influence on Japanese music is easily seen in the music which is written and performed for the Noh theater. This music is said to characterize Zen elements in its “emphasis on the Zen-derived concepts of restraint and allusion . . . . “ Still more Zen in influence is the Noh theater music’s emphasis on “non-logical procedures,” in which the direct experience of perception is more important than finding a particular meaning to the piece.
Noh music is interesting in that it allows for a certain degree of flexibility and interpretation on the part of the musician, a concept which is rooted in the Zen tradition of spontaneity. However, it also relies heavily on the Zen style of discipline and adherence to form, in that the ability of the musician to improvise is limited by certain constraints of the Noh music form. Although this seems to be a paradox and a contradiction in terms, Zen does place a great emphasis on both spontaneity and discipline. In this way, Zen music, or any other Zen art for that matter, may be compared to Sumi painting in that:
There one sees the same mountains, flowers,
boats, or creatures and is captivated by
the consummate skill with which the artist
draws the same image again; it is exactly
correct and may be different from earlier
versions, but it is not the difference that
makes it art.
Just as this can be said about Sumi painting, one may say of Noh music that although the same piece may be played even on the same instruments each time, there are subtle differences lying in the spontaneity of the moment which may lead to the direct perception of the present.
Zen Buddhism has had a markedly profound influence on all aspects of Japanese culture. Its dominance may be seen in the fact that the Japanese have used Zen ideals to transform even the most basic events of daily life, such as the making of tea, into schools of art. Zen teachings and practices have been influential for creating certain structural rules for the various arts while simultaneously encouraging the artist to maintain a characteristic spontaneity within a rigid framework. Most importantly perhaps, is the fact that Zen has given Japanese art a sense of simple truth which is somehow filled with meaning, in that even the most mundane occurrence may be transformed through art into an opportunity for reaching spiritual enlightenment.