The Lessons of Nothingness by Maverick Zen Monks

WASHINGTON — When the country recoils, when stress levels peak, a little nothing goes a long way.

Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan, in the Freer Gallery of Art (an arm of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), is a show of delightful absence: a stark and beautiful exhibit where form is immersed in silence, and the ego dissolves into empty space. Large and majestic screens support almost rambunctious landscapes. Kanji tumbles from calligraphy scrolls. Cracked teacups become gateways to a world of impermanence.

It provides a great introduction to Japanese (and some Chinese) painting from the 14th to 17th centuries, but there are other reasons why it’s worth a visit. Truly, this is the exhibit for anyone in 2022 who wishes the anxious, panting world to be beyond ordinary shut up

Zen is the most purified and austere tradition in Mahayana Buddhism, and “Mind Over Matter” brings together more than 50 objects from Freer’s rich collection of Zen art, one of the largest outside Japan. While the show features bowls, vases, lacquerware, and woodblock-printed books, the bulk of it are black ink paintings created by medieval monks working in Zen monasteries. The lines are calligraphic, impressionistic. The compositions feel free, sometimes even rushed. Up to 90 percent of a painting can remain untouched — on a breathtaking early 17th-century screen by Unkoku Tōeki, the river, sky, and mountainside are all just vast emptiness.

But to the abbots and disciples who first saw these paintings, or to the artists who revered them centuries later, their scarcity and spontaneity had both a religious and an aesthetic impulse. These were works of art that could immerse you in the world by removing yourself from it, making the self and the universe identical. Now these monochrome paintings may seem simple, but their disappearing traces of black ink have the depth of philosophy, especially on the four- and six-panel screens shown here in a dimly lit gallery that makes even the minimalist football fields of Dia Beacon feel. overcrowded.

Zen Buddhism originated sometime in the late fifth century AD in China – where the school is known as Chan – and flourished during the Tang and Song dynasties. It was from the outset a more eccentric and spartan approach to Buddhism than the Indian-rooted traditions that preceded it. The Zen/Chan patriarch Huineng (638-713 AD), an illiterate whose innate discernment of the Buddha nature would make him the most influential educator of the school, espoused that enlightenment came as a “sudden awakening,” as opposed to to the gradual attainment for which earlier Buddhists were in demand. The main route to this sudden enlightenment was ‘no thought’: an emptying of the mind, achieved through meditation (Zen, in Japanese), until one reaches the highest state of consciousness, known as satori.

Japanese monks traveling to China had contact with Chan masters, but Zen did not become well established in Japan until around 1200. You can see the new religious tone in four paintings (of a set of 16) of arhats, or disciples of the historical Buddha, done by 14th-century artist Ryozen in the studio of a Kyoto monastery.

Working from Chinese models, Ryozen painted the arhat Bhadra with his mouth hanging open, his extra-long eyelashes hanging down like palm fronds. The arhat Luohan also sits open-mouthed, a three-eyed demon at his side; the arhat Nagasena is half-naked, his robe bending from his gaunt and starving body. The figures are bare, knobbly, distorted with age; they don’t look friendly; their severity and strangeness put them at some distance from the serene bodhisattvas you may know. But as disciples who through their own effort attained enlightenment and escaped the world of suffering, the arhats were the prime examples of Zen practice.

Today, zen has become a western abbreviation for peace and tranquility, all too reducible as a lifestyle hack. (Especially today, in the meditation app version: Satori now refers to a laser hair removal clinic, and instead of contemplation at the tea ceremony, we have selfies at Cha Cha Matcha.) But Zen is about much more than balance. Zen is also surprise, rebellion and deviation. The masters beat their students with wooden rods forever, or shouted and laughed into the wind, not composing riddles (koan) that could never be understood. Maverick monks like Ikkyu Sojun, whose brash calligraphy broke with monastic celibacy and claimed sex was a valid step toward satori.

Zen celebrated antisocial characters, such as the rustic Chinese poet Hanshan — known as Kanzan in Japanese or Cold Mountain in English — whose unadorned verse, legend has it, was scribbled on logs and rocks. Hanshan was a favorite subject of Zen painters, and he appears here in a 14th-century scroll by an artist named Kao. His hair is a rat’s nest and his ragged cloak is made with just a simple calligraphic loop. (Hanshan would later become a muse for 20th-century American artists; Jack Kerouac dedicated “The Dharma Bums” to him, and Brice Marden’s “Cold Mountain” series drew on Zen traditions to reconcile painting and poetry. .) Many of the Zen paintings here have the same joy in inadequacy or indecision that Hanshan brought into his verse:

My heart is like the autumn moon
Radiantly clean and clear in the green pool.
No, that’s not a good comparison.
Tell me how shall I explain.

It wasn’t all renunciation. In a sublime pair of late 16th century black ink screens, Japanese gentlemen take their leisure in Chinese fashion, practice painting and calligraphy, play music, and go. Even in assembling broken ceramics, through the art of visible repair known as kintsugi, there was room for luxury: a tea set was soldered back together with rivulets of gold.

But you can’t take it with you, and in Zen landscapes, the world at your fingertips always seems fleeting, for short. Stunt trees, shown with a few black stripes. Jagged mountains, swept away in the mist. For all their beauty, these idealized and streamlined Zen paintings can best be understood as the efforts of individual monks to express and stimulate the non-thinking that even painting would reveal as just another part of this cycle of life. and death. They offer no lesson, or rather, they offer the original lesson of Zen: the lesson of nothingness.

That philosophical restraint may even make these paintings more of a welcome disturbance than their visual scarcity. Art today is a parade of the self, a cavalcade of stories, an endless transmission of messages. It’s all vanity. There is a ninth century story about three Buddhist monks crossing a bridge in rural China and encountering a student of the Zen master Rinzai. One of the monks gestures to the water flowing below them. He asks, in great metaphor, “How deep is the river of Zen?” And the disciple, moving to push the other monk into the water, says, “See for yourself.”

Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan

Until July 24, the Freer Gallery of Art (part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC; 202-633-1000,

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