Section 2: Zen's position on art


Can Zen painting be defined?

Just as Zen thought has much in common with the rest of Chinese philosophy, its painters are not so different from others. In fact, they may be called the most typically Chinese of them all. Since this kind of comparison is beyond the scope of this paper, Siren and Waley are quoted:

"In Zen Buddhism is the very essence of the ideas which penetrate Chinese aesthetics and the clearest philosophical reflection of the Chinese attitude toward painting, an attitude which, broadly speaking, existed as an undercurrent since earliest times, though it was most definitely exposed by the Zen philosophers.

"To most of the Zen painters, the Zen tenets formed simply a psychological preparation. They worked from the Zen point of view even if they did not submit to the formal training of the monastic life. Zen painting may be considered a special school only in the degree of individual characteristics and subjective impressionism." {Siren: The Chinese on the Art of Painting, p. 92}

"Through Zen was obtained a better understanding of the psychological conditions under which art is produced that has prevailed in any other civilization. I do not mean that Chinese artists found in Zen a short cut to the production of beauty. Art was regarded as a kind of Zen. It is of utmost importance to the artist that the public should have some notion of the conditions under which art can be produced -- it should have some key to the vagaries of a section of humanity which will in any case always be found troublesome and irritating. It is in the language of Zen that art after the 12th century is usually discussed in China and Japan." {Waley: An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting, p. 227.}

"Look into your own nature." The importance of vision to the Zen Buddhists is obvious in this key phrase. In the monasteries a priest can attain insight by practicing an art or in ordinary living. Being an artist then is an eminently ordinary occupation. Art is considered a means to attaining insight. But, since, in the last resort, nothing is gained by effort or insight, art is also an end in itself.

The use of paintings as teaching devices is mentioned but apparently was not traditionally formulated. Zen Buddhists always refuse to explain their "way". However, there is mention of a series of ten cow-herding pictures illustrating the upward steps of spiritual training in the form of a cartoon strip. A man goes out to tame a wild cow, learns how to master it by himself, and comes home riding it. Two very late Japanese interpretations of old Chinese originals were found in the Kokka, (see reproduction) leaving eight others unaccounted for.

The difficulties of characterizing "Zen" painting are numerous. The Western art historians call Liang Kai, Mu Chi, and Yu Chien, the most important of the first Zen Buddhist painters. No one has traced the development of this school of painters consistently. In other words, no one has developed a criterion for what is and what is not Zen Buddhist painting.

Since Zen doesn't provide concepts easily illustrated, its concepts seem to help painters to be good painters rather than to limit them to a certain type of picture. Strictly speaking, the only Zen subject is the spiritual portraiture of Zen monks and the only contribution to painting, technically, was the use of the "mass stroke" {defined later}.

The method of inquiry has been to assume that the paintings are Zen ones, to analyze the paintings, and to tentatively relate them to characteristics of Zen Buddhism. Each point about painting in the following list is brought up directly in Section 6 and referenced in Sections 7 and 10.

Negative Characteristics:

  1. Zen monks lead experimental lives outside of cities, so they paint no human affairs, social commentaries, historical narratives or secular portraits.

  2. Zen monks don't believe in any external Buddha so they do not use traditional Buddhist iconography.

  3. Zen monks are trained not to be fooled by mere appearances, so they do not try to imitate reality or copy it.

    Subject Matter:

  4. Zen monks believe the Buddha-nature or absolute is in everything, so any ordinary visible thing is suitable and significant subject matter.

  5. The wise Zen master is the key figure for Zen monks, so they paint spiritual portraits of monks.

    Stress On:

  6. Zen monks believe individual being should be considered non-relatively from the root of its own non-dualistic nature, so they study things-in-themselves, hardly noticing the environment.

  7. Zen masters prod the disciples to form their own concepts of reality if they need them, so Zen monks tend to invent rather than conform to a traditional means of expression.

  8. Zen monks try to cope with what is real each moment and they believe in instantaneous enlightenment, so they are interested in the fugitive aspects of nature.

  9. Zen monks believe that contact with reality means being aware of everything at once which is the infinite, so they usually project the self-conscious thing (subject) against the undefined blankness of the whole (paper).

  10. Zen monks describe insight as a return to ordinary or sufficient-mindedness, so they depict things anyone can see which have an ordinary, natural, real, or "thus it is" look.

  11. Zen monks do not believe in fixed rigid communications, so their paintings suggest rather than delineate.

Various aspects of Zen painting

Subject Matter:

In the 13th century, the Bureau of Picture Painting, under the Emperor, categorized pictures and ranked them from greater to lesser significance as follows: Taoist and Buddhist subjects; human affairs; palaces and other buildings; foreign tribes; dragons and fishes; landscapes; animals; flowers and birds; ink bamboos; vegetables and fruits. Of these the Zen painter used only: human affairs; landscapes; animals; flowers and birds; and vegetables and fruits. These are the least conventionalized and esoteric of all the subjects. Human affairs were limited to spiritual portraits of monks. They often depicted famous episodes containing clues to the Zen attitude. Usually the picture is narratively self-sufficient.

As Zen painting is a means towards individual insight, each painter has his favorite subjects. But the thing is usually alive, often in motion, and seems like the result of close observation of nature.

Relation of Subject to Object:

A Zen master said, "Ignore the distinction of subject and object: let the essence of mind and all phenomenal objects be in a state of thusness, then you will be in a state of concentration all the time." Siren quotes him, saying "He designates the highest form of conception and the purest kind of inspiration possible, in which the knower (or subject) becomes the object of his knowledge, the artist the thing he visualizes." {Siren: The Chinese on the Art of Painting, p. 101.}

Since the effort is to perceive "thusness", there is no judgment made of the object. It is not measured against other things relatively and only suggestive details appear. In other words, the consciousness is projected into the thing. Maritain says, "In and through the admirable disinterestedness of the Oriental artist, in and through his pure effort towards Things -- is to be revealed in their pure objectivity. It is also his individual soul, the unique quality of his singular emotion, the secret night of his own singular subjectivity, which are, despite himself, obscurely revealed to us, and which strikes us in the dark. The more the personality of the Oriental artist succeeds in forgetting itself and immolating itself in Things, the more in point of fact, it is present and revives in the works." {Maritain: Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, p. 17}

The Painter's Process:

First, the painter concentrates on preparing his material and getting his mind in order for the execution of the picture. Meanwhile he tries to conceive the very thingness or ultimate reality of the subject to be painted. He works to obtain the intense and luminous vision from which he paints. Willetts believes that there is a connection between the fact that the Chinese are trained when young to remember the thousands of intricate characters of their language and their ability to remember, without copying, the model. When the painter is ready, he paints his feeling very quickly. No corrections may be made -- soon the insight is lost except for what has been gained on paper. He spends more time conceiving than painting. If the painting doesn't work, he blames his mind, not his hand. He makes no preliminary sketches, no partial realizations.

The artist must be master of his technique. He must not have to consciously control his brush and the medium must be "docile", fast, and simple. The immediate transfer of a vision leads to a similarity of brushing all over the picture.

Formal Problems:

Obviously, the highly skilled work in Zen painting could not have existed without a long tradition of advances in painting technique. The Chinese writer or painter uses ink, paper, or silk, and round pointed-tipped brushes. All authors agree on the suitability of these austere materials for Zen painting. The Zen painter rarely uses color. He works in small format with only a little ink. He does not need much material to express his ideas. Ink is the essence or bare nature of painting.

Since the same materials are used in the art of writing, the classifications of calligraphy are used to describe three kinds of brushwork in painting. They range from the formal, rigid, square, dignified sober type through the cautious but moderate, pliable type to the sometimes illegible, most cursive, individual, free, and casual type. The last is considered the hardest to do, but when mastered, it reveals the greatest spirit. It is practically a separate language. Generally speaking, these types were established by the 4th century. The last type, a series of abbreviations and individual interpretations, was possible only when a conventional standard had been established. Zen painting in its purest form is of the third type.

It is valuable to make short references to various ways of using the brush to depict objective forms, touching only on what leads to the mass stroke used by the Zen painters. Objects may be completely outlined in ink and filled-in solidly with flat colors. Outline drawings are also used alone, with varying degrees of thickness to suggest color changes. Ink washes of varying intensity may be added to the outline drawing to indicate three-dimensional qualities of contours and folds. The original outline may be obliterated so that the washed mass alone stands for the form, or the painting maybe done without outlines.

The Zen painters of the 13th century perfected a new method which may be defined as implying not the edge but the interior mass or planes of a form with discontinuous strokes. Since I am not familiar with the Chinese designation for this technical innovation, I have called this the "mass stroke".


There is a great deal of unpainted paper in the Zen paintings, which has tempted art historians to account for their "space" or "negative space", or "emptiness". One equates it with the "philosopher's symbols": it "echoes the great void, the essence of the intuitive mind, the ultimate reality." {Siren: The Chinese on the Art of Painting, p. 101 ff.}

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