Zen, traced to the ancient teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, took root in China via India around 1,500 years ago through the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma. Spread there by the priest Linji Yixuan (Rinzai Gigen, died 867), it was transmitted to Japan in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) and patronized by the elites — imperial family, nobility and warrior class.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), it spread to the wider populace, most prominently by Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), a figure who since the late 19th century known is mostly as a painter and calligrapher, though was foremost an extraordinary religious teacher. “The Art of Zen: From Mind to Form” at the Kyoto National Museum commemorates Linji Yixuan’s 1,150th and Hakuin’s 250th memorials of their deaths.
Zen places emphasis on enlightenment through meditation and mind-to-mind transmission of Buddhist knowledge. True understanding is not conveyable in words. But Zen is a many varied thing and revels in paradox. Without doubt it is the most widely recognizable form of Buddhism worldwide, particularly since its boom in the 1950s and ’60s that resulted in everything from California communes to Robert Pirsig’s”Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and Bart Simpson solving the riddle of “the sound of one hand clapping.”
Zen has achieved enormous cultural influence, though the popular approach today has tended to obscure the religious path as well as some of the political and social dimensions. We can appeal to the past for the truer face of Buddhism, a superlative example being found in Hakuin’s “Daimyo Procession Under Mount Fuji” (18th century).
Two roads run below the volcano. The one close to the mountain has pilgrims and beggars walking it, a postal worker runs. At a teahouse on the far-right, a black-robed monk sits and gazes up at Mount Fuji, a kind of stock reference to the itinerant Buddhist poet Saigyo (1118-1190) in contemplation.
The other road features an extravagant daimyo’s retinue returning to its home province following the forced attendance policy in which the lord resided in Edo for a few months each year. Their families remained in the capital year round as a form of governmental insurance policy to keep the provincial overseers obedient. Horses and scores of figures, including samurai and porters, tread the road. None in the procession look upon Mount Fuji’s visage.
The Buddha-world is distant from the government-sanctioned puppetry of the foreground march. Spectacle though it may be, it was the farmers and common folk’s taxes that paid for such extravagance. Hakuin was being subversively critical.
The inscription states that the painter was depicting the Buddha’s “true face,” and this is the snow-covered peak of Fuji that towers over the world of trivial human affairs below. At the request of a priest in Kyushu, the painting was completed for and sent to Jisho-ji, meaning “self-nature temple.”
“The Art of Zen: From Mind to Form. In Commemoration of the 1,150th Memorial of Linji Yixuan and the 250th Memorial of Hakuin” at Kyoto National Museum runs until May 22; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.kyohaku.go.jp. It moves to Tokyo from Oct. 18 to Nov. 27, at the Tokyo National Museum.