WASHINGTON — When the country is in turmoil, when stress levels rise, a little bit of nothing goes a long way.
“Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan,” at the Freer Gallery of Art (a branch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art), is a dazzling display of absence: a raw and beautiful exhibition where form is submerged in silence and the ego dissolves into empty space. Large and majestic screens support almost impetuously sober landscapes. Kanji crumbles into calligraphy scrolls. Broken teacups become portals to a world of impermanence.
It offers an excellent introduction to Japanese (and some Chinese) painting from the 14th to 17th centuries, but there are other reasons why it might be worth a visit. Really, this is the show for anyone in 2022 who wants the anxious, panting world outside to just go away. to shut up.
Zen is the purest and most austere tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, and “Mind Over Matter” features more than 50 objects from Freer’s rich collection of Zen art, one of the largest outside of Japan. While the show contains bowls, vases, lacquerware and woodblock-printed books, most are black-ink paintings by medieval monks working in Zen monasteries. The lines are calligraphic, impressionistic. The compositions feel free, sometimes even hasty. Up to 90 percent of a painting can be left intact: in a stunning early 17th-century screen by Unkoku Tōeki, the river, sky, and mountainside are just blank expanses.
But for the abbots and disciples who first beheld these paintings, or for the artists who revered them centuries later, their scarcity and spontaneity had both a religious and an aesthetic thrust. These were works of art that could immerse you in the world by taking you out of it and make the self and the universe identical. Now these monochrome paintings may look plain, but their fading black ink trails have the depth of philosophy, especially on the four- and six-panel displays shown here in a dimly lit gallery that makes even Dia Beacon’s minimalist soccer pitches look overloaded
Zen Buddhism emerged in China, where the school is known as Chan, sometime in the late 5th century AD. C., 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 insight into Buddha nature would make him the most influential pedagogue in the school, argued that enlightenment came as a “sudden awakening,” instead opposition to the gradual attainment by which earlier Buddhists gave prominence. The main path to this sudden enlightenment was “no thought”: an emptying of the mind, achieved through meditation (Zen, in Japanese), until reaching the highest state of consciousness, known as satori.
Japanese monks who traveled to China had contact with the Ch’an masters, but Zen was only properly established in Japan around 1200. The new religious tone can be seen in four paintings (out of a set of 16) of arhats, or disciples. of the historical Buddha, made by the 14th-century artist Ryozen in a Kyoto monastery workshop.
Based on Chinese models, Ryozen painted the arhat Bhadra with his mouth open and his extra-long eyelashes drooping like palm fronds. Arhat Luohan also sits with his mouth open, a three-eyed demon next to him; the arhat Nagasena is half naked, his robe hanging over his emaciated and hungry body. The figures are bald, gnarled, crooked with age; they don’t seem friendly; their severity and rarity put them at a distance from the serene bodhisattvas you may know. But as disciples who by their own efforts attained enlightenment and escaped the world of suffering, the arhats were prime examples of Zen practice.
Today, Zen has become the Western shorthand for peace and calm, too reducible as a lifestyle gimmick. (Certainly today, in its meditation app version: now Satori refers to a laser hair removal clinic, and instead of tea ceremony contemplation we have Cha Cha Matcha selfies.) But Zen is much more than balance. Zen is also surprise, rebellion and aberration. Teachers always hit their students with wooden sticks, or shouted and laughed in the wind, when they were not posing riddles (koan) that could never be understood. Maverick monks like Ikkyu Sojun, whose brazen calligraphy 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 unadorned verses were, legend has it, scrawled on tree trunks and rocks. Hanshan was a favorite subject of Zen painters, and appears here in a 14th-century scroll by an artist named Kao. His hair is a rat’s nest, and his ragged cape has been rendered with a simple calligraphic bow. (Hanshan would later be a muse to 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 inadequacy or inconclusiveness 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 I explain it to you.
Not everything was resignation. In a sublime pair of black ink screens from the late 16th century, Japanese gentlemen revel in Chinese style, practicing painting and calligraphy, playing music, and voila. Even when broken pottery pieces were put together, through the art of visible repair known as kintsugi, there was room for luxury: a tea service was welded together with rivulets of gold.
But you can’t take it with you, and in Zen landscapes the world at hand always appears evanescent, abbreviated. Stunted trees, rendered with a few black bars. Jagged mountains, erased in the mist. For all their beauty, these streamlined, idealized Zen paintings are best understood as the efforts of individual monks to express and stimulate non-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 the primary lesson of Zen: the lesson of nothing.
That philosophical reticence may make these paintings an even more welcome interruption than their visual scarcity. Art today is a parade of the self, a cavalcade of narrative, an endless transmission of messages. Everything is vanity. There is a story from the 9th century about three Buddhist monks who cross a bridge in rural China and meet a disciple of the Zen master Rinzai. One of the monks points to the flowing water below them. He asks, in great metaphor, “How deep is the river of Zen?” And the disciple, moving to push the other monk into 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.