Art can be compared to a sponge that absorbs everything floating in the air, including social norms, political moods, and religious ideas. As for religions, Eastern countries have always been under the influence of a number of spiritual teachings with Buddhism and the idea of Zen among them. Japanese art used to be under the influence of Chinese philosophical teachings such as Confucianism and that influence has permeated the artistic work of Zen monks as well. Therefore, images discussed in this essay share a common ideology of traditional Zen and Confucian themes.
Zen Buddhist monks practiced their philosophical and religious ideas through concentrated actions. Along with meditation, painting and calligraphy were obligatory practices. Buddhist monks tried to express the essence of the Zen teaching through laconic images. One of the ideas that engrossed the minds of Buddhists was a difficulty and sometimes inability to reveal the depth of Buddhist teachings with the means people possess. Fugai Ekun, a monk-painter of the Edo period, expressed this idea in Hotei Pointing at the Moon (1568-1864). Hotei, a legendary Chinese Zen monk of the tenth century, is painted on a scroll in grey and black colors with his finger pointing up (Seo and Addiss 165). Hotei is shown with his back to viewers and he is holding his travel bag. Viewers cannot see the Moon, but realize that it is up there from the direction of the Hotei’s finger. The image is metaphorical and should be understood as an indication to the transcendent. The Buddhist monk testifies and speaks about Buddha’s teachings, which cannot be completely revealed through speech. Buddha is known to say that his teaching is “a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself” (“The Eightfold Path”). Therefore, when a person sees a finger pointing at the Moon, he or she is supposed to look at the Moon, but not at the finger and not to confuse the two, otherwise a person will never see the Moon. The idea is intensified by the absence of the Moon in the painting. Fugai points out the fact that the truth, just like the Moon, is outside people’s mind and cannot be fully grasped (Seo and Addiss 165).
Zen monks often made illustrations for well-known Buddhist parables. One of them is about blind men, each grappling a different body part of an elephant and describing it for the ruler so that he receives absolutely different reports about the same animal. Many artists have painted this subject matter. Famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) makes his version of the parable depicting an elephant meekly standing in profile while enduring its examinations (Keown 1). The parable is another spin on the idea that Buddhism is a complex subject and, depending on one’s abilities and knowledge, people can have very different understanding of the same teaching. In particular, one should want to refrain from generalizations on the subject. Hokusai is the least “Japanese” among Japanese artists. Introducing new subject matters into woodblock printing, Hokusai was captivated with the beauty of the world around him and was interested in drawing everything he saw, including peasants and animals that were deemed too low and common to be captured in painting. From Western art traditions, Hokusai adopted shadowing and a more realistic depiction of perspective (Tokugawa). Blind Monks Describing an Elephant features one of Hokusai’s favourite themes – the natural world. The artist reached the highest degree of realism and precision in his depiction of a huge beast and a tree on the left. In comparison to the elephant, blind monks who crawl all over it and under it measuring its head, belly, feet, trunk, tail, and ears, and reporting consequently are so tiny that it looks like a water-pot, granary, a post, a plow, a brush, and a winnowing basket (Keown 2).
Talented artists occasionally introduced new plots into the traditional Zen realm of subject matter. The theme of human blindness again resurfaces in Hakuin Ekaku’s Blind Men Crossing the Bridge. Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) has been considered to be both a very important Zen master and a Zen artist (Seo and Addiss 137). Unlike other Zen artists who worked with traditional themes of Zen symbolic plants and Zen figures, Hakuin explored the topic of metaphorical depiction of spiritual searches. Portraying a number of blind men carefully groping the log they were walking on over an abyss, Hakuin gave a visual representation of people’s poor awareness of reality. Hakuin developed this theme in several paintings; there are images of a different number of blind men on a log bridge, ranging up to nine (Seo and Addiss 139). There is even a picture with one figure. Hakuin experimented with the theme and polished it to perfection, reducing the number of figures and minimizing the landscape. In this drawing of two men, the silhouette of the mountain is dimly looming in the distance; the place of destination is vaguely outlined. Brushstrokes are minimal and precise. Figures are depicted moving forward with effort; one man is walking leaning on his walking stick, while another is crawling on hands and knees with his walking stick tucked into his pants behind his back and his sandals hanging from the walking stick. The fact that the log is hanging in the air may seem a warning against “the blind leading the blind” and, indeed, a traditional Zen philosophy has a koan “One blind man tugs many blind men; Pulling each other into the fire-pit” (Seo and Addiss 141). However, Hakuin adds a few poetic lines to the painting and interprets the theme in his own way, stating that people should follow their intuition because “mind/heart that can cross over is the best guide” (Seo and Addiss 141). Anyway, the road to spiritual enlightenment is dangerous and requires a leap of faith at some point.
In Japanese calligraphy, along with hieroglyphs, depiction of circles was practiced. Buddhists call these circles ens? and see them having a vast symbolical meaning. Some regard it as a mere calligraphy practice, while others insist that it represents a world of connotations. The symbolism of ens? ranges from deep spiritual meanings to mundane aspects of everyday life. Being “the symbol of the shapeless, colorless essence of all beings,” the circle also represents the universe and enlightenment (Seo 16). In its minimalism inherent to Japanese art, the ens? was used by Zen monks as a spiritual practice revealing the inner state of an artist (Seo 10). Usually, an ens? was painted in one brushstroke with ink on paper (Seo xxi). The circle could be closed or with an opening. The shape of the circle also varies: some draw wavering outlines, while others try to steady their hand. Seemingly of a simple shape, the ens? can reveal a fascinating range of individual peculiarities. All factors such as roughness of paper, thickness of brush, ink tones, and shapes of the circle result in a great variety of individual variants. Thus, a too energetic brushstroke can break apart the line and make ens? “fluffy,” while a brush soaked in ink could produce a halo on wet paper and the viewer’s perception will be different. Inzan Ien (1754-1817) tended to place his circular line in the lower right corner as if making it with two brushstrokes (Seo 100). Daido Bunka’s ens? are bold and thick, giving the sense of directness and energy, unlike Gasan Jit?’s demure and tender circles, which seem to quiver in fluid movements of the brush (Seo 48; 24). Often, ens? are inscribed with names, poems, or questions. A Zen master can inscribe his ens? with “a rice cake” or “the universe” or can simply ask “What is this?”, making the viewer guess the meaning of the ens?. Ens? used to be associated with the moon or the sun. It is the most direct association due to its shape and the fact that people constantly observe either of these objects above.
The theme of a circular shape is continued in the work of a modern Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi. In 1969, for the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Washington, Noguchi made Tamba granite sculpture Black Sun. Attempting to blend artistic practices of East and West, the sculpture received mixed reviews. Acknowledging artistic merits of the monument such as elegance and strength, critics pointed out that the symbolism was “too contrived, too intellectually conceived” (Sullivan 165). Placed on the Capitol Hill, Noguchi’s Black Sun is 9 feet tall and 3 feet thick and of a doughnut shape with a hole in the middle. Minimalism and simplicity of the circular shape imply the Eastern tradition, while the Western angle of the sculpture is presented by modern-looking tire-like indentations and the fact that the Space Needle can be observed through the hole in the sculpture. For Noguchi, the sun is a “coiled magnet, the circle of ever-accelerating force” (Sullivan 166). Admittedly, there is a connection to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu who, according to a legend, founded Japan (Sullivan 166).
Summing up, it can be said that Japanese art has developed a range of recurring themes. The motifs of circles and blindness have repeatedly occurred in works of Japanese artists due to their universality and ubiquitousness. As much as people are surrounded with circular shapes and can endlessly wonder about their meaning, the human race is infected with blindness in matters relating to enlightenment and spiritual searches. The above discussed artistic works have a common theme of Zen Buddhism. Zen has always placed a great importance on meditation and creative expressions for spiritual awakening, rather than cramming up religious texts and doctrines (Keown 120). That is why, Zen monk-artists saw it necessary to practice painting and printing. With humor and unconventional approach, artists could better get their message across, both for themselves and viewers. On their examples, Hokusai, Hakuin, and Fugai demonstrated that even within the frameworks of spiritual teaching artists could exercise certain freedom and introduce new topics or develop existing themes with new twists. Living in the newest time, Noguchi was not limited by any constrains of philosophical or religious teach