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Looking at and Reading Zen Paintings

Kyoko Asai
Professor, Aizu Museum

This fall, the Tomioka Shigenori Collection Gallery held an exhibition titled Hakuin, Suio, Torei. I would like to consider what it means to look at Zen paintings and to "read" Zen paintings based on the works of these three Zen masters whom the exhibition showcased.

It was in 1962 that Nigensha published the book Zenga by Kurt Brasch, who introduced paintings and calligraphic works of Hakuin and other Zen Buddhist monks to Europe. In 1968, an exhibition titled Hakuin as a Painter was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama. There was, however, some criticism about referring to the calligraphic works of past Zen Buddhist monks as Zenga (Zen paintings). It was in the late 1980s that it became natural to use the term Zenga to refer exclusively to paintings by early modern Zen Buddhist monks.

In October 2000, an exhibition called ZENGA—written in alphabetic characters—opened at three museums starting with the Shoto Museum of Art in Shibuya, which mainly consisted of works from the Gitter-Yelen Collection. The HAKUIN, The Hidden Messages of Zen Art exhibition, which opened in December 2012 at Shibuya Bunkamura The Museum, presented Hakuin's previously unknown works from his forties, and advocated the value of "reading" the paintings rather than just looking at them.

Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768)

Hakuin is regarded as the person who revived the Rinzai school of Japanese Buddhism. He traveled around the country spreading Zen teachings with the Shoinji Temple in Hara, Numazu as his base. In addition to his many writings, he left innumerable works of calligraphy and Zenga. His paintings boast the widest range of subject matters among Zenga artists, along with those of Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) who was active in the late Edo period.

Hamaguri Kannon Zu (Kannon on a Clam Shell)

Hamaguri Kannon Zu

The Kannon is shown in the middle of the painting, holding an iron bowl and a willow branch, down on one knee and with a lotus flower under each leg. A crowd of humans surround the Kannon, listening to her sermon. In addition to the Dragon King on the left edge of the painting, attended by sea serpents, sea creatures such as crabs, octopuses, shrimp and sea snails crown the heads of the humans. These are likely inspired by the fact that the Kannon emerged from a large clam, also pictured in the bottom right corner. The work is painted in color on a silk scroll, which is rare for Hakuin.

The Hamaguri Kannon, who emerged from a clam, is one of the 33 forms of Kannon, and is supposedly derived from the tale of Apparition in Taihe year 5 of Emperor Wenzong of Tang (the Emperor, who had a particular love of clams, is said to have been enlightened as to his fate one day by a Kannon who emerged from inside a clam). The inscription, which reads, "The Kannon watches over human beings with her merciful eye/And brings fortune and longevity as unending as the ocean," is a reference to the Illustrated Scroll of the Lotus sutra, and often appears in Hakuin's Kannon paintings. While the original scripture reads, "Gathers fortune as unending as the seas," in his seventies Hakuin replaced the character for "gather" with a homophone that means longevity, and wrote the character with big, bold strokes. In other Zenga, Hakuin appends the reading nagahiki (long life) next to the character. Up until his last years, he wrote this character in various different styles.

Hakuin has painted a few Hamaguri Kannons, but this particular work is estimated to have been painted in his mid-seventies, between the periods of the Shoinji collection and the Eisei-Bunko collection.

Suribachi Zu (Mortar)

Suribachi Zu

This is a painting of a mortar and a pestle. The inscription says, "A good time is having/A pillar behind you/A drink in front/A fond guest/And the sound of the mortar."

Drinking alcohol with a friendly visitor, leaning against the pillar. The side dish that is being pounded in the mortar is miso. In another of Hakuin's suribachi zu, a little bird is perched on the tip of the pestle, and the inscription reads, "Even though it resembles a nightingale, it is a winter wren." This is a pun on misosazai (winter wren) and miso, which is grounded in the mortar.

Suio Genro (1717–1789)

He became a disciple of Hakuin at the age of 30, and after the death of his master, took over the Shoinji Temple. His first name was Eboku. He entered Myoshinji Temple at the age of 48, adopted the title of Suio, and changed his name to Genro. He also had the alias Futo and used alternative characters for his name Suio until the prime of his life. A liberal-minded person, he preferred poetry, alcohol, chess and painting to meditating and reading scriptures, and was said to have been a friend of Ikeno Taiga.

Kanzan Jittoku Zu (Hanshan and Shide)

Kanzan Jittoku Zu

The visible area is filled by a sutra scroll, which is Hanshan's trademark object, hung on a broom—Shide's trademark object. Hanshan's poetry is inscribed on the scroll. Kanzan peers at the scroll from the side, and Jittoku gazes up at it, hands clasped behind him. The inscription praises the virtues of Hanshan's poetry, saying, "I have Hanshan's poetry in my abode/A read that surpasses even the scriptures/It sits atop the folding screen/I contemplate a verse now and again." The depiction of the head of a person looking directly above can be found in the figure paintings of Ikeno Taiga among others.

Torei Enji (1721–1792)

After a discipleship with Kogetsu Zenzai, he became a disciple of Hakuin at the age of 23. When he was 29, he was given Hakuin's robe, and became head monk at Muryoji Temple. Later, he opened the Ryutakuji Temple in Mishima, and welcomed Hakuin as its founder. Some disparaged the style of Torei's sect, saying, "Suio is a great talent, Torei is sensitive." However, his paintings and calligraphic works are numerous and bold, with inscriptions and drawings that are blended together, depicting a unique world with a special bohemian quality.

Chabishaku Zu (Water ladle)

Chabishaku Zu

This picture is of a water ladle standing in a bamboo stem with roots. Although water ladles are also featured in the works of his master Hakuin, this painting is rare in that the ladle is positioned vertically like the ornamental ladles that are placed on shelves, while in most paintings the ladle is placed on its side. Its inscription reads, "Even the water ladle, which is tortured frequently by the cold and the heat, does not suffer if it has no mind," preaching the importance of having an unfettered mind.

First, you observe what is being depicted. Then you appreciate through this observation the appeal of the shapes and the imaginative ingenuity of the painting, and contemplate these things. You investigate the origin of the forms. Then you look at the paintings again. If you begin seeing something new through this repeated process, you may be able to gain a fresh perspective, which may trigger a change in your outlook. This may be one of the reasons for the renewed interest in Zenga in recent years. 2017 marks the 250th anniversary of Hakuin's death.

Kyoko Asai
Professor, Aizu Museum


A former curator at the Tomioka Art Museum from 1980, then its cultural manager from 1994. In 2004, she was appointed as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Aizu Museum, following the donation of artworks from the Tomioka Art Museum. She has been at her current position since 2007.