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Exhibition: “Early Modern Zen Paintings”—from the Tomioka Collection—

Kyoko Asai
Professor at the Aizu Museum

Beginning from after the Golden Week holidays in May, an exhibition entitled “Early Modern Zen Paintings” will be held in the Shigenori Tomioka Collection Gallery. The approximately 300 early modern Zen paintings featured in the exhibition were painted by Zen monks who were active mainly in the Edo Period. These 300 painting compose about one-third of all works which were collected by Shigenori Tomioka and housed in the former Tomioka Art Museum. Early modern Zen paintings done by Zen monks who lived in the Edo Period are called “zenga(1) in Japanese. The most famous of these Zen paintings were painted by Hakuin and Sengai. However, in addition to Sengai, Seisetsu and Zen monks in the genealogy of Hakuin, the exhibition will also introduce paintings by Fugai Honko, a Zen monk from the Soto sect. A Zen painting was painted as images of monk’s spiritual awakening, as proof of inheriting the dharma, or as sustenance for people to exercise self-restraint. Even while containing such intentions, some Zen paintings appear as if they were painted with enjoyment.

Kouri Kannon

The first painting that I will introduce is the painting of “Kouri Kannon” (Kannon emerging from a clamshell) by Hakuin Ekaku (1685 to 1768). Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, gushes forth from a clam shell and gives a sermon to people depicted as dragons, fish and shellfish. One of the 33 incarnations of Kannon Bosatsu which originate from the “Lotus Sutra,” Kouri Kannon is said to have been depicted in the “the legend of Empeor Bunso.” According to the legend, Emperor Bunso’s favorite food was clams, and he achieved spiritual awakening when Kannon appeared from a clamshell and delivered a sermon. Images of a transforming Kannon were popular in the Edo Period, and Hakuin depicted such a transformation through a design which defied the boundaries of the rules. The painting is a wonderful visualization of the great mercy of Kannon. Although many of the Kouri Kannon paintings only portray a clam and Kannon, Hakuin painted an audience with sea creatures on their heads. Hakuin spent his life based near the ocean at Shouinji Temple in Numazuhara. One can imagine that many people engaging in the sea came to hear sermons delivered by Hakuin. This design of Kouri Kannon surrounded by an audience may have been from the imagination of Hakuin. Other works designed similar to this painting can be found in the collections of Shouinji Temple and Eisei-Bunko Museum. Judging from the calligraphy style of the caption, the type of brush stroke and the form of Kannon, it is estimated that Hakuin was in his 60s when the work at Shouinji Temple was painted, in his 80s when the work at Eisei-Bunko Museum was painted, and in his 70s when the Kouri Kannon shown here was done. The caption in this painting can be translated as follows: “Kannon gazes upon all life with love as limitlessly as the ocean.” This caption is an excerpt from a verse extolling Kannon from the “Lotus Sutra.” Although the sutra uses the Chinese character “ju” (聚), Hakuin replaces it with “ju” (壽), another character with the same sound. In another place, Hakuin uses the character “ju” (壽) together with furigana which reads “inochi-nagashi, ” as a word expressing an aspiration for long life in many scenes. Some examples of the character “ju” (壽) being featured prominently are the caption in Hakuin’s paintings Jurojin, “Hyakuju,” which features the character “ju” (壽) written in a variety of styles and enlarged “ju” (壽).

Toso Tenjin

The painting of “Toso Tenjin” depicts how Tenjin, the heavenly god, saw a dream in which he performed Bujunzenshi, transformed into a dharma and brought home one sprig from a plum tree. The painting contains the phrase “Namu Tenmandai Jizai Tenjin” (南無天満大自在天神). In his painting “Shujinko”, Hakuin’s disciple Torei Enji (1721-1792) used the 3 characters “shujinko” (主人公) to depict a sitting person who portrays the Buddha-nature. Known as mojie, this style is similar to drawing a face using “henohenomoheji,” which is a face drawn using hiragana characters. Another example of mojie is Hakuin’s painting “Hitomaru,” which is drawn using a Japanese poem written by Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro. This painting was used as a charm against fire, a play on words referring to how “hi tomaru” means “stop fire” in Japanese. Other examples of mojie include Torei’s painting “Shinjubutsu Sanpo Yogo Seishin.” When viewed from this perspective, it seems that characters may be hidden in the body of the painting of “Shoki” in Hakuin’s several sideways paintings. Unfortunately, the characters have not yet been deciphered.

A cloth bag, staff and round fan are depicted in the painting “Nonobukuro.” Although no person is depicted, Hotei is portrayed using possessions. This is one type of the rusu-monyo style Hakuin enjoyed. In this painting, a bottle is used to express the goddess Kannon, a straw hat and hammer for the god Daikokuten, and a torii gate and plum for the god Tenjin. The caption reads “Hotei left behind his round fan, staff and cloth bag—was he a god or a Buddha?” It is estimated that Hakuin painted Nonobukuro when he was in his late 60s or early 70s.


The Zen paintings of Sengai Gibon (1750 to 1837) possess a humor and warmth which can be described as wittiness that differs from Hakuin. Shown here is the painting “Dharma,” which was done by Sengai in the 5th year of Tempou era (1834) when he was 85 years old. Dharma’s upper body is portrayed using characters written in the sosho style of calligraphy, appearing primitive at first glance. The caption reads as follows: “Dharma came to China riding on a single reed and returned to his birthplace holding a single shoe. That distance was nearly ten thousands of miles; it could be described as far but is actually quite close.”

The painting of “Hotei” shows him holding a round fan. He is using his trademark bag as a cushion and has turned over stretching. Hotei could be described as the alter ego of Hakuin, and Hakuin’s paintings show Hotei engaged in a variety of activities such as zazen meditation, a begging Buddhist monk in strange clothes, doing dish-spinning tricks, riding a toy horse and accompanying children. However, almost all of Sengai’s paintings of Hotei show him in this stretching pose. The caption reads as follows: “The Buddha has already returned to the forest of sal. Yet to emerge from the inner shrine is the Maitreya which will appear in 5,670,000,000 years to save mankind. My decline is so extreme that I can no longer see Shunko in my dreams.”

The painting “Hibari” (Skylark) depicts tufts of wheat and a skylark. The painting most likely expresses a teaching through the skylark; however, considering that the upcoming exhibition will be held in the spring, the painting was selected as a symbol of zestful springtime. The caption reads as follows: “The skylark cries earnestly while springing into flight.” Another work of Sengai depicting plants is the painting of “Take” (Bamboo). Together with orchids, bamboo was a common subject for brush painting using Indian ink. Sengai drew a variety of paintings featuring bamboo. Perhaps he saw a way of living in the flexibility of bamboo; how it endures while swaying with the wind and bending with the weight of snow. Although the work in our museum’s collection is not large, it is a fine item. The caption reads “a picture devoid of method.”

General Guan Yu

In addition to the featured painters Hakuin and Sengai, the upcoming exhibition will introduce other artists including Torei Enji and Suio Genro (1717 to 1789), who were known as two great talents developed by Hakuin, Suio’s disciple Shunso Shoju (1751 to ??), Kogan Gengei (1747 to 1821), a disciple of Sokai who was in turn a disciple of Hakuin, Sozan Genkyo (1799-1868), a disciple of Takuju Kosen who was taught by one of Hakuin’s disciples, and Settan Syoboku (1801 to 1873), who was one generation younger than Sozan. Also included are Seisetsu Shucho (1746 to 1820), a fellow disciple in the same generation as Sengai, and Fugai Honko (1779 to 1847), a member of the Soto sect.

Seisetsu was a Buddhist monk who restored Kamakura Engaguji Temple. Please compare the painting of “Kanzanjittoku” by Seisetsu and to the painting of “Kanzanjittoku” by Suio. Two types of “Daito Kokushi” were painted by Sozan and Settan. The painting of “Guan Yu” by Shunso is colorful and dignified. Fugai Honko is said to have held high respect for Ikeno Taiga, and Fugai’s “Sansui” painting shows the influence of Taiga. I hope that you will visit our museum and carefully view each of these Zen paintings from Hakuin to Settan.

*Bold letters denote works which will be displayed in the upcoming exhibition.
1) Naoji Takeuchi, known for his magnum opus Hakuin (Chikuma Shobo Publishing, 1964), states that the term “zenga” should not be used and instead recommends the term “zenrin bokuseki”. However, in recent years, the term “zenga” has begun to be used in limited reference to Zen paintings in the Edo Period.

Early Modern Zen Paintings

May 7th (Tues) to June 29th (Sat)
Venue: Shigenori Tomioka Collection Gallery

※Currently, the Shigenori Tomioka Collection Gallery of the Aizu Museum is holding an exhibition entitled “Animals.” This highly interesting exhibition features a large collection of dragons, horses and dogs depicted through art works and paintings.
Please feel free to come to our museum and enjoy the exhibition.

Kyoko Asai
Professor at the Aizu Museum

Former Arts and Sciences manager at the Tomioka Art Gallery. Took up position at Waseda University in April 2004 and is currently a professor at the Aizu Museum.