Essay Zen Buddhism Japanese Art

The art of Zen education resource:
History of Zen Buddhism

The Origins of Buddhism

Buddhism is one of the world's oldest religions, which originally had its roots within the Hindu culture in India. According to tradition, Buddha was born at Lumbini , near the present day border of India and Nepal in 563BC. He was born Prince Siddhartha Gautama. At the age of twenty-nine Siddhartha left his royal family in search of spiritual truth and the cause of human suffering.

After six years of searching he resolved to sit in silent meditation under a Pippala tree (usually refered to as a Bodhi tree) until he achieved enlightenment. This took place at Bodh Gaya south east of the ancient Indian city of Varanasi (Benaras). After forty-nine days of meditation he attained enlightenment, after which he travelled to Sarnarth, a short distance north of Varanasi, to preach his first sermon.

The name Buddha means awakened or enlightened one. When the Buddha died he attained nirvana or a final release from human suffering.

Although Buddha did not write down his dharma or teachings, later followers who lived around the modern day Indian state of Bihar transcribed his teachings and spread them through Northern India. Buddhism developed rapidly, especially when it was embraced by the powerful emperor Ashoka in 262BC. Eventually it spread to other Asian countries and, in more modern times, to many parts of the western world.

Buddhist Teaching

The Buddha taught that life involves suffering but that suffering comes from our sensual desires and the illusion that they are important. By following the middle way - moderation in everything - and what became known as the noble eightfold path these desires can be extinguished and a state of nirvana eventually reached. In most cases this process involves going through a series of rebirths or reincarnations until the ultimate goal is reached. The path that leads through this cycle is determined by karma - a law of cause and effect. Good and bad actions in one life determine roles to be played in the next life and so on. A similar belief in karma and reincarnation is common to Hinduism. The later teachings of Zen proposed that it was possible to attain nirvana, like the Buddha himself, in a single lifetime.

The Origins of Zen

Zen is a school of Buddhism which emphasises the practice of meditation as the key ingredient to awakening ones inner nature, compassion and wisdom. The practice of meditation (Zen in Japanese) as a means of attaining enlightenment was introduced, as we have seen, by the Buddha himself. Zen approached Buddhism in the most direct, simple and practical way. It grasped that enlightenment was the most fundamental aspect of Buddhism and thus did away with sacred scriptures, rituals and objects of worship, all of which had become a major aspect of Mahayana Buddhism in India.

This more direct approach was introduced into China in the sixth century by the travelling Indian monk Bodhidarma. It was introduced into Japan a century later. In this new method (or no method) approach spiritual truth was to be transmitted not by words but by spiritual enlightenment. To this end Zen masters used (as well as meditation) question and answer riddles known as koans to trigger rapid enlightenment in their students by shocking them out of their conventional ways of logical thinking. One well known koan is to contemplate the sound of one hand clapping. In addition they also used Zen poetry, painting and calligraphy as vehicles to enlightenment or as fingers pointing to the moon.

Zen in Art (China)

Zen Buddhism flourished as a dynamic intellectual force during the Tang dynasty (618-906 A. D.) in China. The philosophy of Zen was embraced by Chinese scholars - officials, poets and scholar-amateur painters. Scholar-amateur and monk painters executed highly original, spontaneous and abbreviated ink paintings.

The artist Dong used Zen concepts to distinguish between 'art' ( Southern school) and 'craft' ( Northern School). Like Zen, art cannot be precisely defined. Like a Zen awakening, the artist creates with originality from within. 'Art', it was thought, was not measured by achievement in the gradual mastery of technical skills and conventions. These were associated with 'craft'. Thus in the Mountain Landscape, Dong has created a highly original and revolutionary work. The austere, solitary, semi-abstract landscape does not so much represent an actual place as express the artist's inner spiritual world. In this inner landscape, the human figure, a reminder of the banal and dusty world, is excluded. It is refreshing in its strength, intensity and apparent child-like awkwardness.

Zen in Art (Japan)

Zen Buddhism reached Japan in the 7 th century but was not firmly established until the 12 th century. Zen permeated the aesthetic sensibilities of every day life in Japan, in particular the simple act of drinking tea. Towards the end of the 12 th century, powdered green tea was brought back to Japan from China by returning Zen Buddhist monks, who drank tea to stay awake during long hours of meditation. The spirit and etiquette of serving tea was transformed into the art of the 'tea ceremony' ( cha-no-yu , hot water for tea) first performed by Zen monks for the military class in the 15 th century.

In the 16 th century, the tea masters, whose practice was informed by Zen, became arbiters of aesthetic taste. They began to use local rustic wares, such as Shigaraki ware, selected for its natural beauty. The rough and dynamic Shigaraki jar, originally made to store grain, was adopted as a container for tealeaves. The aesthetic taste and spiritual perception of beauty of the tea masters has extended to the familiar and commonplace, including objects of humble origin. The Japanese love of nature includes the appreciation for natural textures and rough accidental effects.

A flaw or apparent imperfection is appreciated as Wabi or the beauty of poverty.

The Beauty of Poverty

The concept of the beauty of poverty is relevant to the appreciation of this unique paper robe (kamiko) which is made of paper and lined with silk, worn by men and women of all classes during the Edo period (1615-1868). Paper was used for garments in Japan from about a thousand years ago. The poor, who could not afford silk or cotton, used paper as a cheap material for clothing. Paper clothing was not durable. When worn, it could be easily damaged and torn and would disintegrate if washed. Buddhist monks adopted paper garments of the poor, associating it with 'holy poverty'. Copying the monks, other members of society from samurai and nobility to wandering poets and tea masters adopted paper clothing, which had come to symbolise a life of detached simplicity, humility and vulnerability.


Dusk, that most beautiful moment

With no pattern.

Millions of images appear and disappear.

Beloved people.

How unbearable to die in the sky.

Hours after writing these lines, the 24-year-old Tadao Hayashi fuelled a battered Mitsubishi A6M Zero and flew it towards an American aircraft carrier – and into nothingness. It was late July 1945. A few days later, the United States would drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A war sold to the Japanese public as a struggle for national survival would be over.

In contemporary Western memory, still stocked for the most part by wartime propaganda imagery of mad, rodent-like Japanese, those final weeks are a swirl of brainwashed fanaticism, reaching its apotheosis as hundreds of kamikaze planes slammed into the US ships closing in around Japan’s home islands. Three thousand raids and innumerable scouting missions were launched during the climax of the conflict, designed to show the US the terrible cost it would pay for an all-out invasion of Japan.

Yet the vast majority of planes never made it to their attack or reconnaissance targets; they were lost instead at sea. And war’s end failed to yield the apocalyptic romance for which Japan’s leaders so fervently hoped. By late 1944 and early ’45, the only ‘life or death struggle’ was the routine misery to which the empire itself had reduced its soldiers and civilians. Conscripts were trained and goaded to fire their rifles into their own heads, to gather around an activated grenade, to charge into Allied machine-gun fire. Civilians jumped off cliffs, as Saipan and later Okinawa were taken by the Allies. Citizens of great cities such as Tokyo and Osaka had their buildings torn town and turned into ammunition.

Nor do clichés of unthinking ultranationalism fit the experiences of many kamikaze pilots. For each one willing to crash-dive the bridge of a US ship mouthing militarist one-liners, others lived and died less gloriously: cursing their leaders, rioting in their barracks or forcing their planes into the sea. A few took their senninbari – thousand-stitch sashes, each stitch sewn by a different well-wisher – and burned them in disgust. At least one pilot turned back on his final flight and strafed his commanding officers.

And then there were the university students. Hundreds of thousands of young men such as Tadao Hayashi were pulled from lives of Goethe and Flaubert, classical music concerts and debates about Marxism, and forced to enlist. Around 1,000 of them ended up on kamikaze missions, alongside boys of a similar age who had never got further than elementary school. Earlier in the war, university students had been able to put off conscription while they studied. By the autumn of 1943, only those majoring in science or education retained that privilege, so desperate were Japan’s leaders for recruits.

By day these student pilots were beaten – often unconscious – by superiors and non-student conscripts who resented their privilege. By night, they wrote: letters, diaries, poetry, struggling to imagine being here today and not tomorrow, to justify their own deaths in the way they had been taught by their leaders. Wasn’t Japan a nation under threat of extinction, hemmed in spiritually and strategically by the US and Britain? Weren’t they obliged to defend their people and values against the nihilistic hyper-individualism of two once-great nations?

Most of these students were a good deal more sophisticated than the ideologues who ranted to them about the evils of Western materialism. But wartime caricature had its roots in peacetime critique. Ever since the 1890s, Japanese scholars had warned that Western metaphysics, epistemology and morality were so profoundly hard-wired into the technological culture of the US and Europe that, by importing this culture, Japan had let in all the rest and stood now on the verge of forgetting itself.

How did Japanese intellectuals let an anxiety become a call to arms? It is hard enough to analyse the process in retrospect, the dust of conflict having long ago settled. For many student soldiers living through the drama of 1944 and ’45, this sort of discernment was simply beyond them. In search of meaning, they fled the vacuous slogans of the military, only to end up in the embrace of pioneering thinkers whose distinctly ‘Japanese’ philosophy increasingly pointed in just one direction: the battlefield.

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One of the most ambitious schemes for a Japanese philosophy – where nothing by that name had existed before – was emerging at Hayashi’s own institution in 1943, just when he was forcibly removed from it. The great project of Kitarō Nishida, a seasoned Zen practitioner and the founder of what became the ‘Kyoto School’ of philosophy at Kyoto Imperial University, was to do what many Zen Buddhists insisted was impossible: to describe the picture of reality revealed in meditation.

Nishida sought to reverse the key premise of Western philosophy, writing not about ‘being’ or ‘what is’, but instead about ‘nothingness’. His was not the relative nothingness of non-being – the world of the gone-away, the not-yet or the might-be. He meant absolute nothingness: an unfathomable ‘place’ or horizon upon which both being and non-being arise.

To help students make sense of this idea, Nishida liked to draw a cluster of small circles on the lecture-hall board. This is how people usually see the world, he would say: a collection of objects, and judgments about those objects. Take a simple sentence: ‘The flower is yellow.’ We tend to focus on the flower, reinforcing in the process the idea that objects are somehow primary. But what if we turn it around, focusing instead on the quality of yellowness? What if we say to ourselves ‘the flower isyellow’, and allow ourselves to become perceptually engrossed in that yellowness? Something interesting happens: our concern with the ‘is-ness’ of the flower, and also the is-ness of ourselves, begins to recede. By making ‘yellowness’ the subject of our investigation – trying to complete the sentence ‘Yellowness is…’ – we end up thinking not in terms of substance, but in terms of place. The question isn’t so much ‘What is yellowness?’ as ‘Where is yellowness?’ Against what broader backdrop does ‘yellowness’ emerge?

For Nishida, the answer was a special sort of consciousness: not first-person reflection, where consciousness is the possession of an individual, but rather a consciousness that possesses people. It becomes less true to say that ‘an individual has experiences’ than that ‘experience has individuals’.

‘Absolute nothingness’, after all, is not an idea to be grasped: it is a provocation, a literal insult to the intelligence

But if consciousness is the horizon beyond ‘yellow’, what is the further horizon? Where is consciousness? Nishida drew a dotted, all-encompassing line on the board. This, he said, is ‘absolute nothingness’, producing and interpenetrating every other plane of reality. Absolute nothingness is God. And God is absolute nothingness.

One wonders how many students filed out of Nishida’s lecture hall thinking: ‘A-ha! Now I get it!’ They could surely be forgiven for trying to understand absolute nothingness the same way we understand most things: by making it into an object of thought, placing ourselves outside it and perusing it from all angles. Yet a nothingness to which you could do this would not be absolute: it would just be one among that cluster of small circles on the board.

Nishida probably wouldn’t have minded such doomed attempts at understanding. ‘Absolute nothingness’, after all, is not an idea to be grasped: it is a provocation, a literal insult to the intelligence. It was already de rigueur in the Zen circles of Nishida’s day to scoff at the limited reach of conceptual knowing, treasuring instead the koan, the meditation cushion and the knowing look. But Nishida and his colleagues in the Kyoto School preferred not to write it off until it had been tested to the limits – tested, one might say, to destruction. ‘Absolute nothingness’ had the potential to perform that function. It promised to bring about the realisation that the idea of knowledge ‘from the outside’ must largely be a fiction.

The trouble was, as an idea, it had other sorts of potential too. The war was dragging on. Japan’s chances of winning – or even achieving a respectable peace – were fading. There is a fine line between understanding an idea such as ‘absolute nothingness’ and deploying it as a rationalisation, and it appears that Nishida and his colleagues crossed it – and encouraged their readers to do so, too. A relatively abstract set of ideas were allowed to take on potent political form.

Neither Nishida nor his great friend and rival Hajime Tanabe – who trained with Martin Heidegger before joining Nishida at Kyoto – ever put their talents unreservedly at the service of Japan’s political leaders. Tanabe was in fact an early and vocal critic of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism. But caught up in Japan’s crisis, and fearful of following fellow academics who equivocated in their support for the regime out of their university posts and into the jail cells of the ‘Special Higher Police’, they began to explore how metaphysics, politics, and war might fit together.

Nishida, a one-time devotee of Hegel and Heidegger, returned to his Zen Buddhist roots to ask whether mistaken subject-object dualisms in human thinking – that cluster of circles on the lecture-hall board – might be to blame for Western nations’ ‘imperialist squabbling’. A case of politics rooted in culture, rooted in turn in an error of perception.

Tanabe went much further. By what means, he asked, does absolute nothingness manifest itself in the world of being? Not directly, in an individual’s inner life. No, between absolute nothingness and the individual there must be some kind of mediating power. Looking around, Tanabe saw only one obvious candidate. ‘God does not act directly on the individual,’ he wrote. ‘The salvation of the individual is accomplished through the mediation of nation and society.’

talk of ‘the’ nation turned to talk of ‘our’ nation, its ultimate symbolisation in the emperor, and even the possible necessity of death in the service of both

This was still a fairly innocuous observation about how Japan was being held back by what Tanabe regarded as a clan mentality: people brought up in a closed society were struggling to open themselves to the wider world. The trouble, in a sense, was that they were poor internationalists. And Tanabe owed as much here to Hegel as to Buddhism – he understood individual lives to be shaped entirely by the ebb and flow of historical time, itself part of a great metaphysical unfolding.

Things changed, however, when Tanabe started to insist on the nation as the fundamental context in which individuals and society mediate one another, the realm in which individuals work out their salvation. Perhaps the nation was what made philosophy possible at all. Then talk of ‘the’ nation turned to talk of ‘our’ nation, its ultimate symbolisation in the emperor, and even the possible necessity of death in the service of both. ‘Our nation is the supreme archetype of existence,’ Tanabe concluded. (His one-time mentor, Nishida, is rumoured to have whispered to a friend: ‘This Tanabe stuff is completely fascist!’)

The same dark times that rendered two of Japan’s best-known philosophers unusually susceptible to political and public pressure softened up students for their grand ideas and bold claims. In the spring of 1943, Tadao Hayashi went to see Tanabe lecture. ‘The only salvation for us, according to Professor T, is to realise that one must die,’ he wrote with enthusiasm in his diary. ‘We should live our lives prepared to plunge into death at any moment… Professor T [said] … that humans and God do not come into direct contact. Instead, a nation mediates between the two’.

Months later, when Hayashi was drafted to serve that nation, Tanabe had this message for him and his fellow student conscripts:

You are to learn the spirit of the Imperial Army… which is none other than the quintessential flowering of the spirit of the nation… Take the lead in breaking through the pass between life and death… By serving the honourable callings of the Sovereign as the one whose person brings together God and country, you will share in the creation of the eternal life of the state. Is this not truly the highest glory?

Tanabe’s words were now not far off the surreal language of a kamikaze training manual, aimed at the sort of people who liked to beat up the Hayashis of this world for being too smart:

Do your best. Every deity and the spirits of your dead comrades are watching you intently. It is essential that you do not shut your eyes for a moment so as not to miss the target. Many have crashed into the targets with wide-open eyes. They will tell you what fun they had.

No wonder that the last letters and diary entries of young men such as Hayashi were full of confusions and contradictions. They were summoning all the resources of an elite education to try to cast their tragic situations in a meaningful light. For the most part, they failed. At their most convincing, they set politics and philosophy aside and invested themselves instead in letters to their families – and particularly to their mothers. ‘I am happy to go,’ wrote one pilot to his mother, ‘but I begin to cry when I think of you. I want to be held in your arms and sleep… I have a great deal more to say, but I will stop here. [Tomorrow is] the final sortie. Goodbye.’

As his students piloted their Zeros out towards the sea in 1944, Tanabe sat at home, trying to decide whether the time had at last come to speak out against the conflict, influential figure that he was. Could he help to achieve a surrender? Or would an intervention merely place Japan in even greater peril? The more Tanabe tried to find a rational answer, the more frustrated he became with himself and with the pursuit of philosophy altogether. What was the point of it, if it offered no answers at precisely the moment they were most needed?

In the end, the strain caused something to break inside him, and he found himself flooded with what he later called zange: repentance. It was a shattering encounter with the power of absolute nothingness, not as the ‘place’ talked about by Nishida but as the dynamic ‘Other-power’ in which many Japanese shinshū Buddhists placed their faith. The result was a new and totally foreign sense of self – one that was ‘given’ and raw, rather than owned and honed. Tanabe was moved to adapt the words of St Paul: ‘It seems no longer I who pursue philosophy, but zange that thinks through me’.

Finally now renouncing his old assertions about the Japanese nation, and working behind the scenes to try to end the war, Tanabe felt that nothing less than human reason itself had been ‘shattered’ inside him. Human will, too: his new ‘absolute critique’ of reason implied a total admission of defeat, on all fronts. Everything had to go.

For Tanabe’s critics, these dramatic events came too late, and in Japan’s bitter post-war accounting he was numbered amongst those – lawyers, philosophers, novelists, cultural critics – who could have spoken out against the war but chose not to. Worse, he had actively peddled what one critic called a ‘philosophy of death’.

Were Tanabe’s simply a darkness-into-light conversion story, one would certainly find the convenience of its timing suspect, and its dismissal of reason a little humdrum. But this picture of surrender and insight, reason and rationalisation, was at once less hopeful and more compelling.

The search for a truly ‘Japanese’ philosophy ended instead with a picture of the human condition as caught between death and rebirth

For a start, humans don’t turn their backs on reason, Tanabe insisted. It has its obvious merits, and to imagine that we’re not stuck with it as a fundamental part of who we are is to become lost in mystical fantasy. Rather than give up on it, we have to reason at full-throttle – until it gives up on us. Until the plane breaks apart or careers into the sea. Only at that point might we find ourselves so completely humiliated, so bereft of slogans and comforting stories to tell ourselves, that we dissolve into ‘absolute nothingness’, and absolute nothingness works unimpeded through what is left.

Even then, the journey is not over. Tanabe discovered something in himself that sought always to possess any new experience or idea, no matter how profound or engrossing. A desire to manage life from the margins soon reasserted itself, deploying insights rather than sacrificing oneself to them. Tanabe’s was not, then, a philosophy of death, nor even of death and rebirth. The search for a truly ‘Japanese’ philosophy ended instead, for him, with a picture of the human condition as caught between an unsought shattering in zange and an unwanted re-formation of the pieces – back and forth between death and rebirth.

It is hard to fathom Tanabe’s reasons for never apologising clearly over the ultranationalist turn that his wartime thought briefly took. But part of the story might have been this: after August 1945, he saw people all around him making apologies, hurriedly drawing lines under the past – trying to turn darkness into light. And all the while Tanabe’s best guess, hard won, was that such shifts simply don’t last. Sooner or later the darkness will be back.

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Christopher Harding

is a lecturer in Asian history at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in modern Indian and Japanese history. He is one of BBC Radio 3’s ‘New Generation Thinkers’, 2013-14.

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