Zen Buddhism and Art in Japan

Zen Buddhism: Detail of Jurojin-portrait-by-Sesson

The National Asian Art Museum’s medieval Zen collections are currently on show at the Freer Gallery in an exhibition that brings together works from Japan and China to illustrate the visual, spiritual, and philosophical power of Zen in Japan. Chan Buddhism (Zen in Buddhism Japan) originated in China around the 5th century,  and was probably introduced into Japan by the itinerant monk Eisai, the first to combine Esoteric and Rinzai Zen Buddhist teachings, who had founded Kenninji temple in Kyoto in 1202. It is said that it was Eisai who also brought the first tea seeds to Japan, introducing the art of tea, writing Japan’s first book of tea in 1211, Healthy Living Through Drinking Tea (Kissa yojo ki). Although Eisai rigorously defended Zen, he did not seek to put the religion on an independent footing. The development of Zen practice came with his successors, such as Dogen and the 13th-century monk Daikaku Zenshi, the 11th head abbot of Kenninji temple. Zen Buddhism eventually became established in the monastic culture and these new ways of thinking and living, which continually evolved over time, became widespread and continues throughout the world today.


The early Zen practitioners saw Buddha’s teachings or dharma (doctrine or universal truth) in a different and unique way. They chose to interpret and understand these teachings through words and gestures, from master to disciple. Monastic life comprised meditation, daily labour, and the study of koan ((Zen riddles of logic and language). An example is the often-quoted question ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Rinzai Zen was known for its tough, and sometimes violent encouragement for those seeking enlightenment. Whereas all three sects practise meditation extensively, Rinzai practitioners espouse the idea that something extra – a well-timed kick, or a sharp whack with a bamboo stick, for example – can jolt the mind from a meditative daydream to sudden enlightenment. The arts of painting and calligraphy were also practised in daily life and an important part of religious discipline.

Zen Painters in Japan

This exhibition explores the artistry of the Japanese Zen painter from the religion’s emergence in the 13th century to its zenith in the 16th century. The figurative paintings convey the unconventionality of Zen teachers and eccentrics by capturing their often surprising and inscrutable behaviour, depicting the devotional lives, or by showing the everyday life of individual monks. Other works explore the role of allegory and koan. These Zen-influenced paintings with their origins in medieval Japan (circa 1200-1600) are now considered to be one of the great artistic traditions of East Asia.

Many of the most accomplished artists of the period, such as Mokuan, Ryozen, Shubun, Sesshu and Sesson, are important exponents of this tradition and credited by later generations as the creators of a remarkable legacy of ink and colour paintings that have inspired a number of the most important professional painting lineages of Japan’s early modern period (circa 1600-1868), which form a thematic backbone of Japanese art and cultural identity that can still be seen in Japanese life today.

A distinctive and popular subject matter of Zen Buddhist painting is the eccentric poet-recluse Kanzan (Hanshan), whose image first started to appear in Japan in the 14th century. This image comes into the category of doshauga (Daoist and Buddhist paintings). The imagined image provides a means of incorporating mythical or legendary characters of uncertain historical background along with known historical figures from the Daoist and Buddhist worlds. The source of the character is believed to have been an eccentric poet/recluse who lived on Mount Tiantia, in east China, during the Tang dynasty (618-907). A painting of the recluse by an unknown 14th-century artist can be seen in this exhibition.

Figurative Art – Chinso

Another popular category of figurative art is formal portraits of monks (chinso). Likenesses, or portraits, of Zen masters. were often used in mortuary rituals, like other portraits in East Asia at the time, but they also reflected the teacher-pupil transmission of knowledge that forms a bedrock of the Zen tradition. In the exhibition, the portrait of Gaofeng Yuanmiao highlights how Zen masters of generations past could act as role models for practice in later periods. The painting is one of few works by the elusive monk-painter Chuan Kinko, who was active at the Kamakura monastery Kenchoji around the 15th century.

Religious exchange visits to China between the 12th and 14th centuries, in particular, had exposed Japanese priests not only to Zen teachings, but also to the ink-painted landscapes favoured by Southern Song-dynasty artists. They brought this new style of practical Buddhism learnt in Chinese Chan temples (where the focus was on meditation) together with painting back to Japan. Mediaeval Japanese artists soon mastered these new painting techniques by studying the imported Chinese works whilst adapting them to depict Japanese subjects. Imbued with Zen ideals of capturing the essence, suiboku (ink art) artists emulated the works of Chinese artists such as Ying Yu-Chien and Mu-chi whose works, mostly lost in China, have been treasured and conserved in Japan.

Japanese Monk-Painters

The works of these medieval Japanese monk-painters could take myriad forms, depending upon their purpose and the status of the painter, including figurative art, landscapes, as well as calligraphic works. Although prized for their colourful paintings, most monk-painters, such as the 14th-century artist Ryozen, were usually of low rank within the monastic hierarchy. In Ryozen’s set of 16 arhats (disciples) on show, the facial expressions reflect their intensity of their vow to protect the dharma after the Buddha’s death. At ceremonies still held in some Buddhist temples on the 15th day of every month, a set of such paintings representing each of the 16 principal arhats is displayed with a central sculpture or painting of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha.


The calligraphy by Ikkyu in the exhibition perfectly also captures the spirit of Japanese Zen. He quotes an excerpt from a mythical conversation that occurred when the Chinese poet Bo Juyi (772–846) sought out a Zen master named ‘Bird’s Nest’, who famously lived in a tree. The two learned men engaged in a conversation that quickly turned to the nature of existence. Asked about the essence of Buddhism, Bird’s Nest replied, ‘Do no evil, do much good’. Bo Juyi responded that even a small child knows this much, but Bird’s Nest challenged him, pointing out that a child may know the way, but even an eighty-year- old may not know how to walk it. Age is irrelevant; the only thing that matters is genuine understanding.

Carrying on the tradition, the monk painter, Sesson Shukei (1492-1577), who was active in eastern Japan, expanded the repertoire of figures associated with Zen monk-painters to include numerous Daoist immortals and folk deities. A work in the exhibition portrays the auspicious Jurojin, the God of Longevity, in a cartoonish manner as an old man with a comically tall, bald head and long beard.

Zen and Tea

Over centuries, both Zen Buddhism and tea became deeply ingrained in the samurai class and now inform much of what foreigners perceive in almost all aspects of Japanese culture today. With freezing monasteries, strict discipline and hard work, the rigours of Rinzai Zen appealed to the Japanese warlords, who shared similar ideals, and its practice quickly spread throughout the military élite. Emphasising intuition and insight over rational thought, Rinzai Zen also had a powerful influence on swordsmanship in which there was no time to think and instant action determined life or death. To show the close connection and history between Zen ritual and tea, the exhibition has a number of rare tea bowls and tea accessories, some dating from the Momoyama period.

From 5th century China and the great expansion and cultivation of its practice over centuries, Zen Buddhism has permeated all levels of Japanese culture – in painting, ceramics, No drama, haiku poetry, swordsmanship, as well as other martial arts. And this, in turn, has influenced contemporary drama and manga – a world away from its beginnings in the medieval monasteries of Japan.

Mind Over Matter: Zen Art in Medieval, until 24 July, 2022, Freer Gallery of Art, asia.si.edu