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Caelum Soverow
ARH 206
2 December, 2014
Depicting Zen
"A great deal of Japanese culture since the thirteenth century is profoundly influenced
by Zen thinking. Not only art but the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, landscape gardening,
swordsmanship, haiku verse, the Noh drama and calligraphy are inspired by Zen1." In
addition to Hakuin's paintings his koans also teach the concepts of Zen. My favorite Hakuins'
koan is ,"Still pond a frog jumps in kerplunk!" I felt the three paintings I chose depict strong
Zen thoughts represented as ink on paper. They stood out to me not only because of the Zen
principles but because of strong technical execution as well.
The Hakuin painting entitled Blind Men Bridge, though in the title "men" denotes that the
image must be of three individuals crossing what appears to be a land-bridge, though I find
this painting is far more meaningful as a continuous narrative of a single blind man feeling
his way through his journey to enlightenment. In this aspect, the land-bridge depicts physical
life as being linear with a definite beginning and end. This painting could also symbolize the
psyche of an individual trying to achieve enlightenment. As one is blind in the ways of Zen
making all earth-known knowledge folly, so the journey to enlightenment is a hidden one.
And, like the blind man in the painting we must feel our way to enlightenment. This image
also depicts the subject in three different poses, each showing the individual in a different
state during his journey. At the beginning he is curiously feeling about with his cane, in the
middle he is slumped over now on all fours as the journey to enlightenment begins to erode

1 Hugo Munsterberg, Zen and Art, Art Journal, vol 20, no. 4 (Summer, 1961), pp. 198 202

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his composure and the last position shows the man crawling as if to say he is getting close to
reaching in turn, being born again. On a technical note, the mountains in the far background
of the painting resemble the style of the Chinese Southern Song.
The second painting I chose, Enso is a simple singular brush stroke that could be seen
as representational of the way of Zen. Describing the concept of infinite is just as difficult as
why this painting is representational of Zen thinking. I feel this single, brushstroke represents
the infinite of everything. "It is very difficult to point to a specific thing and say, "This is a
Zen work," and it is even more difficult to discuss its Zen meaning in the way that it is
possible to talk about the meaning of a Christian work.2" As a work of art this piece is done
with a single stroke of the brush, with wet ink on dry paper. This style leaves no room for
error and must be approached with confidence as a single hesitation can render the circle
uneven, distorting the perfect circle.
Stone Mortar and an Ant depicts an ant making the discovery of singularity. The idea that an
individual cannot be their own being unless they strive to discover themselves by venturing
forth on a personal quest which can only be accomplished by the individual. Perhaps most
importantly, the individual must choose to break ranks and take the initial step. This ant
undertook the journey of discovering and scaling the stone mortar in an effort broaden his
knowledge and define himself as an individual rather than as part of a group.
Approaching these Zen works with an unclear understanding of Zen, made me realize
that this unclear understanding is actually what Zen attempts to express. This journey into the
unknowing where knowledge is everything and nothing.

2 Ibid

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Works Cited:
1) Hugo Munsterberg, Zen and Art, Art Journal, vol 20, no. 4 (Summer, 1961), pp. 198 - 202

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