The Lessons of Nothingness From Maverick Zen Monks

WASHINGTON – When the country heaves, when the stress levels spike, a little nothingness goes a long way.

“Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan,” at the Freer Gallery of Art (an arm of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), is a show of ravishing absence: a stark and beautiful exhibition where form is plunged into silence, and the ego dissolves into empty space. Large and majestic screens support landscapes almost impetuously spare. Kanji tumble down calligraphy scrolls. Cracked teacups become portals to a world of impermanence.

It offers a fine introduction to Japanese (and some Chinese) painting from the 14th to 17th centuries, but there are other reasons you may find it worth your visit. Really, this is the exhibition for anyone in 2022 wishing that the anxious, gasping world outside would just shut up.

Zen is the most purified and austere tradition in Mahayana Buddhism, and “Mind Over Matter” brings out more than 50 objects from the Freer’s rich collection of Zen art, one of the largest outside Japan. While the show contains bowls, vases, lacquerware and woodblock-printed books, the bulk is black ink painting, made by medieval monks working in Zen monasteries. The lines are calligraphic, impressionistic. The compositions feel free, sometimes even dashed off. Up to 90 percent of a painting may be left untouched – in a breathtaking screen from the early 17th century by Unkoku Tōeki, the river, the sky and the mountainside are all just expanses of blankness.

But to the abbots and disciples who first contemplated these paintings, or to the artists who revered them centuries later, their scantness and spontaneity had a religious as well as an aesthetic impulse. These were artworks that could plunge you into the world by removing you from it, and render the self and the universe identical. Now these monochrome paintings may seem straightforward, but their vanishing traces of black ink have the profundity of philosophy, especially on the four- and six-panel screens shown here in a low-lit gallery that makes even the minimalist football fields of Dia Beacon feel overstuffed.

Zen Buddhism arose in China – where the school is known as Chan – sometime in the late fifth century AD, and flourished during the Tang and Song Dynasties. It was, from the start, a more eccentric and spartan approach to Buddhism than the Indian-rooted traditions that preceded it. The Zen / Chan patriarch Huineng (AD 638—713), an illiterate whose innate discernment of Buddha-nature would make him the school’s most influential pedagogue, espoused that enlightenment came as a “sudden awakening,” as opposed to the gradual attainment by which earlier Buddhists set store. The principal route to this sudden enlightenment was “no thought”: an emptying of the mind, achieved through meditation (Zen, in Japanese), until one reaches the highest state of consciousness, known as satori.

Japanese monks traveling to China had contact with Chan masters, but Zen became properly established in Japan only toward 1200. You can see the new religious tone in four paintings (from a set of 16) of arhats, or disciples of the historical Buddha, done by the 14th-century artist Ryozen in the atelier of a Kyoto monastery.

Working from Chinese models, Ryozen painted the arhat Bhadra with his mouth lolling open, his extra-long eyelashes drooping like palm fronds. The arhat Luohan also sits with mouth agape, a three-eyed demon by his side; the arhat Nagasena is half-naked, his robe bowing off his gaunt and starved frame. The figures are bald, knobbly, twisted by age; they don’t look friendly; their severity and queerness put them at some distance from the serene bodhisattvas you may know. But as disciples who through their own effort reached enlightenment and escaped the world of suffering, the arhats were the prime exemplars of Zen practice.

Nowadays Zen has become western shorthand for peace and calm, all too reducible as a lifestyle hack. (Certainly today, in its meditation-app version: now Satori refers to a laser hair removal clinic, and instead of contemplation at the tea ceremony we have selfies at Cha Cha Matcha.) But Zen is about much more than balance. Zen is also surprise, rebellion and aberrancy. The masters were forever thwacking their students with wooden staffs, or shouting and laughing into the wind, when they weren’t posing riddles (koan) that could never be understood. Maverick monks like Ikkyu Sojun, whose brash calligraphy is on view here, broke with monastic celibacy and claimed that sex was a valid step toward satori.

Zen celebrated antisocial characters, such as the rustic Chinese poet Hanshan – known as Kanzan in Japanese, or Cold Mountain in English – whose unembellished verse was, so the legend goes, scrawled on tree trunks and rocks. Hanshan was a favorite subject of Zen painters, and he appears here in a 14th-century scroll by an artist called Kao. His hair is a rat’s nest, and his raggedy cloak has been rendered with just a simple calligraphic loop. (Hanshan would later be a muse for 20th century American artists; Jack Kerouac dedicated “The Dharma Bums” to him, and Brice Marden’s “Cold Mountain” series drew on Zen traditions to reconcile painting and poetry.) Many of the Zen paintings here have the same delight in insufficiency or inconclusion that Hanshan brought to his verse:

My heart is like the autumn moon
Shining clean and clear in the green pool.
No, that’s not a good comparison.
Tell me how shall I explain.

It was not all renunciation. In a sublime pair of black ink screens from the late 16th century, Japanese gentlemen take their leisure in the Chinese fashion, practicing painting and calligraphy, playing music and go. Even when piecing together broken ceramics, through the art of visible mending known as kintsugi, there was room for luxury: A tea service has been soldered back together with rivulets of gold.

But you can’t take it with you, and in Zen landscapes the world to hand always appears evanescent, abbreviated. Stunted trees, rendered with a few slashes of black. Jagged mountains, wiped away in the mist. For all their beauty, these idealized and streamlined Zen paintings are best understood as the efforts of individual monks to express and to stimulate the no-thought that would reveal even painting as just another part of this cycle of life and death. They offer no lesson, or, rather, they offer Zen’s primordial lesson: the lesson of nothingness.

That philosophical reticence may make these paintings even more of a welcome disruption than their visual sparsity. Art today is a parade of the self, a cavalcade of narrative, an endless transmission of messages. It is all vanity. There’s a story from the ninth century about three Buddhist monks crossing a bridge in rural China and coming upon a disciple of the Zen master Rinzai. One of the monks gestures to the water flowing beneath them. He asks, in grand metaphor, “How deep is the river of Zen?” And the disciple, moving to shove the other monk in the water, says “Find out for yourself.”


Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan

Through July 24, the Freer Gallery of Art (part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC; 202-633-1000, si.edu/museums.

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