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Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Zazen and the roundabout road to enlightenment

Special to The Japan Times

In his classic book "Zen in the Art of Archery," Eugen Herrigel makes it clear that trying too hard to hit a target is a sure way to miss it. One wonders whether, conversely, the easiest way to achieve one's aim is to take a roundabout route to it. That would certainly seem to be the case with the art and artifacts of Kyoto's 800-year-old Kenninji Zen Buddhist temple, now on display at the Suntory Museum. This exhibition is, perhaps surprisingly, less about the didacticism and preaching of religion than the aesthetics of pure artistic enjoyment, which can nonetheless lead to enlightenment.

News photo
Wooden statue of Chugan Engetsu (14th century)

"For most Buddhist sects, the goal was to make people believe that Buddhism would save them," explains curator Nobue Mito. "What distinguished Zen monks from the other sects is that they didn't think that directly saving people was the most important thing."

Rather than the short route of proselytizing, Zen monks preferred to take a longer, more scenic road to spiritual redemption; one that involved study, poetry composition, the tea ceremony and the creation and collection of beautiful works of art. All these activities are well-represented here, with examples of calligraphy, poems and other texts such as letters, as well as beautiful paintings executed on various surfaces.

Kenninji was founded by Myoan Yosai (1141-1215), better known as Eisai, who was the founder of the Rinzai sect in this country, and whose protests at the laxity of monastic discipline made him a controversial figure. At Kenninji, of which he was founder-abbot in 1202, Eisai taught a combination of Zen, Tendai and esoteric Buddhism. One 15th-century hanging scroll shows him seated on a chair in the lotus position with his legs folded under his robes. His shoes are on the ground below, giving him the appearance of levitating. This and other scrolls depicting monks in similar postures are now sadly much besmirched -- by incense smoke.

A portrait that has stood the test of time somewhat better is a 14th-century painted wooden statue of the monk Chugan Engetsu. Although most of the color has now faded, the hard, lifelike stare of the crystal eyeballs and the tension with which the figure appears to hold the rod used to discipline monks during zazen meditation, almost makes the viewer expect a sudden admonitory thwack.

With its strong links to Sung Dynasty China, Zen Buddhism was a natural conduit of Chinese culture. This is seen in the dark-glazed temmoku tea bowls on display. The style was imported into Japan in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573) when an example was brought back from a temple on China's Mount Tienmu, famous for its Zen monasteries and tea-growing. "During the Tang Dynasty in China, the best tea bowls were celadon ware as this made the tea seem greener," Mito explains. "But in the Sung Dynasty, foamy tea with a whitish surface became popular, so tea bowls with a contrasting black glaze were preferred." By introducing such Chinese fashions into Japan, Zen's exponents also won popularity with the country's ruling class, who invariably viewed foreign culture with a sense of wonder.

The imagery in Buddhist art sometimes seems an amalgam of Oriental myths and legends. Among the fabled creatures on show, the most impressive is Kaiho Yusho's series of huge hanging scrolls from the Momoyama Period (1568-1600), depicting -- over four scrolls each -- two brooding, stormlike dragons. The most celebrated object on display (from June 25), Tawaraya Sotatsu's folding screen, "Wind God and Thunder God," draws on both Chinese and Indian influences.

The apparent tolerance and mutual acceptance among Oriental religions often seems striking. A triptych of hanging scrolls from the 17th century by famed court painter Kano Tan'yu shows the Buddha harmoniously flanked by Confucius and Lao-tzu. Mito suggests that the reason for such harmony was that both Confucianism and Taoism were regarded more as philosophies than religions, a fact symbolized in this work by the representation of the Buddha face-on, while the two sages, like the portraits of the Zen monks, are all three-quarter views.

Just like other religions, though, Buddhism was occasionally guilty of intolerance and sectarianism. Persecution by the established Buddhist sects -- including charges of heresy -- meant that Eisai was only able to establish the Rinzai temple in Kyoto after he won the support of the shogun, Minamoto no Yoriie. A 1574 letter from warlord Oda Nobunaga to one of Kenninji's subtemples, confirming that it could still raise taxes on the land it owned, testifies to the continued importance of patronage.

By not aiming directly at the goal of salvation, the intellectualism and aestheticism of Zen Buddhism greatly enriched the spirit and culture of Japan, as this exhibition amply demonstrates. Nonetheless, perhaps its leaders had another aim in mind, too. Zen's popularity with the political elite, and the material benefits it reaped, leave the lingering suspicion that part of its mission, like that of other great religious sects, was to curry favor with the powerful.

"Kenninji: The Oldest Zen Temple in Kyoto" runs till July 7 at the Suntory Museum of Art 11F, 1-2-3 Moto Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3470-1073. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m (7 p.m. on Friday); closed Monday, except July 1. Admission 1,000 yen, 800 yen and 600 yen. The exhibition is then at Fukuoka City Museum, July 20-Sept 1.

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