Chan and Zen Buddhism’s unique style, because of the traditions’ straightforwardness and distinctive sense of humor, has influenced classical Japanese and Chinese artists alike. Chan and Zen’s limited use of color produces images with an eye-catching high contrast and the fluidity of the brushwork is instantaneous – with the stroke being a spontaneous and quick motion from wrist to brush. Brushwork in Chan and Zen-inspired paintings is not only an immediate action of the artist, but also mirrors the calligraphic writing style of China and Japan. Chan and Zen-inspired artists focus on landscapes, figure-studies, and even objects that represent visual koans – or unanswerable riddles. Figure-studies usually include Daoist and Buddhist immortals, classical poets, and Buddhist monks and patriarchs.
Spontaneous Mode and Splashed Ink Style
The two styles of painting that inspired me to create my series are known as Spontaneous Mode and Splashed Ink Style. Both styles originate from China, and were further developed by both Chinese and Japanese artists interested in Chan and Zen Buddhism. Both styles are considered an extreme form of Chinese monochromatic painting.
Unfortunately, I am not a master of Zen thought or painting. It takes years of training to become a master at using a calligraphy brush to paint on silk or paper with ink. It is an art form that demands total control of the artist’s hand because little to no mistakes can be made with the black ink on plain silk or paper. I only tried to mirror the style on a primed white canvas with acrylic paint. However, I did not paint any black line more than once - to keep with the feeling of spontaneity in the Chan and Zen painting style.
Notable Chan/Zen-inspired Artists
Yu Jian (Early 13th c. CE)
Yu Jian was a Chinese Buddhist painter-monk who was active in the Southern Song Dynasty. While he was truly influential in the development of Spontaneous Mode, he is not as famous as Mu Qi.
Mu Qi (Early 13th c. CE)
Mu Qi was Chinese Buddhist painter-monk. He is also known as Fa Chang during his time as a monk. One of the greatest exponents of Spontaneous Mode, he is famous for his Six Persimmons.
Liang Kai (~late 12th – Early 13th c. CE)
A Chinese artist highly influence by Chan Buddhism. He learned his craft in traditional art academies in China. He is renowned for his famous piece: Shakyammuni Leaving His Mountain Retreat.
Josetsu (~1400 CE)
A Japanese Buddhist painter-monk who is famous for his piece: Catching a Catfish with a Gourd. He taught Tensho Shubun who would later teach Sesshu Toyo, two master painters in Japan’s history.
Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506 CE)
Toyo was a painter influenced by Rinzai Zen Buddhism, even though he was born into the Oda samurai clan. He is very renowned for his work in both China and Japan, and is considered one of Japan’s best artists. He has many famous pieces, including Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma.
Enlightened Fat Buddha Shows “Fear Not” Mudra
I decided to depict the lovingly termed Fat Buddha in my series of paintings for many reasons. Firstly, he is easily recognizable by Westerners. His image inspires hope as he claims to be the incarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Coming Age. His shape not only reminds me of an enso, but I have also portrayed him with a halo that resembles a Zen enso - to show his understanding of emptiness, or sunyata. His flowing cloud-robes – his only material possession, appear as illusory because of their whimsical appearance. I portray him as a Buddha, even though he is actually a bodhisattva – so, I thought it fitting to adorn him with characteristics usually depicted on Siddhartha Gautama in separate images. These include the topknot, hanging ear lobes (hinting at royal lineage), and the 3rd eye. He displays the Abhaya mudra – “Fear Not”. His face also hints at his feeling of ease and peace. In the first image of the series, he is dressed in his robes, sitting near a cliff side with a lone tree – symbolizing the material world.
The second image in the series will be a simplified outline of his round seated form, much like that of the silhouette of Daruma, easily recognizable in Japanese paintings.
The third image will combine the halo- and the simplified silhouette to make one single enso – signifying the attainment of enlightenment - like in the famous Ox Herder series.
The last two images of the series have yet to be completed.
"Buddhist Deities: Description of Mi-Lo-Fwo / Maitreya Buddha." BuddhaNet - Worldwide Buddhist Information and Education Network. 2008. Web. 01 June 2010.
Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Trans. James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Company, 1994. Print.
Ferguson, Andrew E. Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000. Print.
Hershock, Peter D. Chan Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2005. Print.
Lee, Sherman E. A History of Far Eastern Art. Ed. Naomi Noble. Richard. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1994. Print.
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